I’m back in my art studio again, which means it’s documentary time! While I do very much love being outdoors (as we established in my last post), and nothing compares to the experience of being out in the wilderness, I do enjoy books and documentaries on various natural and scientific topics. The documentaries are a nice thing to have on while I’m working on artwork; I sometimes revisit old favorites, swapped up with new finds on Netflix and YouTube. I love re-watching the “Walking With” series about various dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters, even in spite of the factual errors here and there. I also found a neat BBC series on the evolution of plants, and I spent a while being completely fascinated by the history of the kings of Britain (a bit of latter-day human hierarchical behavior in action).
Most recently I watched The Secret of the Savannah, one of a four-part BBC series highlighting just a tiny bit of the intricate webbing of several complex ecosystems. In this episode the interconnection among the animals, plants, and even base chemical components of grasslands in the Americas, Africa, and Australia were explored, often with surprising results. For example, we know it’s critical to keep the white rhinoceros from going extinct. One of the many reasons is because it’s one of the very few animals that can live on nitrogen-poor “sour” grass. The rhino can process it enough that more nitrogen fixes and leads to “sweeter” grass, which allows other animals, such as antelope, to then live there and create an even more vibrant ecosystem. Similarly, maned wolves, ants, and a particular kind of fruit form a strong triangle of food and fertilizer, benefiting all three as well as others. And so on.
We have made a great career of ignoring these existing relationships that have developed over millions of years. We as a species have done more than our fair share of meddling with existing ecosystems. Few places have not lost native species or had invasives introduced by our hand. And until recently we hadn’t even thought of the effects of those changes. So selfishly we decided we needed the deer and elk more than the wolves and cougars did, and we even determined that the landscape wasn’t good enough without some Chinese pheasants for us to hunt. And just for good measure, we turned much of the land to agriculture (and some of it to Dust Bowl in the 1930s). So it was that much of the Great Plains, the United States’ great grasslands, changed to our whim.
And now natives like the prairie chicken hang on by a thread, and others move to take their place. Certainly the ring-necked pheasant from China isn’t nearly so competitive an invasive as some, and doesn’t have as much to do with the prairie chicken’s lowering numbers as loss of habitat to agriculture does. But if the chickens were all gone, would the pheasant be able to step into its niche? Likely not. While the documentary didn’t detail this particular bird, it did make it clear that we don’t know nearly all the ways in which the species of an ecosystem rely on each other. Given that the chicken evolved here and the pheasant didn’t, there would almost certainly be some “invisible cords” missing if the latter were to go away forever.
The “thousand invisible cords” in the title are a reference to John Muir’s original quote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe” (Muir 1988, p. 110) These cords can be broken, but only by the eradication of a species at one end of it. The cords also cannot be transferred; new ones must be forged, and those forged hastily are rarely as strong or as neatly woven into the ecological pattern. The relationships that the prairie chicken has to the grasses and insects are unique, and the pheasant cannot expect to create the same. The very differences in physical biology of the two birds prevent it, never mind their individual behavior and how that affects their place in the ecosystem.
This is why I am heartened to see a shift to a more systemic approach to nature, instead of just focusing on a single or few charismatic animal species. Our tendency to tunnel-vision has contributed greatly to our ignoring the effects of our decisions, and if we can cultivate a wider way of approaching the world, perhaps we can make wiser, more informed decisions as we move forward. At the very least, if we’re going to be successful in reviving the ecosystems we’ve damaged, we need to have more of an understanding of the intricate ways in which they work. It’s not enough to slap some plants and animals and fungi together and call it good; we need the hows and whys of those beings all together.
This is also why I cultivate the totemic ecosystem. Nature spirituality is a popular way for those feeling disconnected from the natural world to try to access it again. The abstract symbolism and archetypes of totems create imagery that may be easier to grasp than the sometimes very alien world of the wilderness, especially for those who have forgotten their own wild heritage. Plus many of us have come into adulthood without those natural connections intact. The practice of ritual can not only get us in touch with the wild again, but also re-teach us the crucial element of play. Play is how young animals explore their world, and it’s one way we can engage in similar exploration.
But just as young animals don’t only make a study of one or two species in their ecosystem, so we need to expand beyond our individual totems and favorite animals. The spiritual world is not only made of wolves and eagles and bears, but also the totems of mychorrizal fungi and the politics of field mice and the spirits of storm clouds. If your totem is Cougar, then it is good to know as much about cougars as possible. But it’s also important to know who the cougar’s neighbors are, what it eats and why, and what happens when the cougar is taken away, even to the effects on the very soil itself. And the spirits and totems of these can be known as well. So it may not so much be that Cougar is your totem, as it is that Cougar’s Home is your totemic ecosystem.
Clearly there is much more to the study and practice of totemism than just the animals.
So. Think about your local ecosystem and all the intricate connections. Let the concepts percolate in your head, and then let them slowly begin to ooze up into your consciousness. See if your worldview then expands, pick up your stick and drum, and go explore.
Muir, John (1988). My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.