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The Song of the Taste

Eating the living germs of grasses
Eating the ova of large birds
the fleshy sweetness packed around
the sperm of swaying trees

The muscles of the flanks and thighs of
    soft-voiced cows
 the bounce in the lamb’s leap
 the swish in the ox’s tail

Eating roots grown swoll
        inside the soil.

Drawing on life of living
  clustered points of light spun
        out of space
hidden in the grape.

Eating each other’s seed
  ah, each other.

Kissing the lover in the mouth of bread:
        lip to lip.

This innocently celebratory poem went straight to the question of conflict between the ethics of ahimsa, nonviolence, “respect for all beings,” and the necessary lives of indigenous peoples and Native Americans I had known. They still practice ceremonies of gratitude, and they never present themselves as superior to other life forms. Ahimsa taken too literally leaves out the life of the world, and makes the rabbit virtuous but the hawk somehow evil. We must see the organic world as a great feast, a puja, to which we are the invited guests, and also, sooner or later, part of the meal. We can be grateful for that. We can enter into the process, but with gratitude and care, not an arrogant assumption of human privilege. This cannot come from “thinking about” nature; it comes from a being within nature.

There are plenty of people of influence and authority in the churches, in industry, the universities, and high in government who still like to describe nature as “red in tooth and claw” (a line of Alfred Tennyson’s)—a fundamental misunderstanding—and use it as part of the justification for the war against nature.

I would now like to propose some simple definitions: The English word “nature” is from Latin natura, “birth, constitution, character, course of things,” and ultimately from nasci, to be born. It connects with the root nat, which is connected with birth, so we have nation, natal, and native. The Chinese word for nature is zi-ran, meaning “self-thus.” Although in common English and American usage “nature” is sometimes used to mean “the outdoors” and set in opposition to the realm of development, the word “nature” is best used in its specific scientific sense, referring to the physical universe and its rules—the “laws of nature.” In this use it is equivalent to the Greek physis. In other words, nature means “everything” The agricultural, the urban, the wild mountains and forests, and the many stars in the sky are all equally phenomena. “Nature” is our reality.

Cities and agricultural lands, however, are not “wild. Wild is a valuable word. It is a term for the free and independent process of nature. A wilderness is place where wild process dominates and human impact is minimal. Wilderness need not be a place that was never touched by humans, but simply a place where wild process has ruled for some decades.

The wild is self-creating, self-maintaining, self-propagating, self-reliant, and self-actualizing, and it has no “self.” It is perhaps the same as what East Asian philosophers call the Dao. The human mind, imagination, and even natural human language can also thus be called wild. The human body itself, with its circulation, respiration, and digestion, is wild. In these senses, “wild” is a word for the intrinsic, non-theistic, forever-changing natural order.

Ecology, another key word, has the Greek oikos as its main root, with the simple meaning of “household.” It referred originally to the study of biological interrelationships and the flow of energy through organisms and inorganic matter. In recent years it has become a popular synonym for “outdoor nature.” I prefer to use it closer to the original meaning, with an emphasis on the dynamics of relationship in wild natural process. (I presented these definitions more fully in my 1990 book, The Practice of the Wild.)

The field of ecological study embraces questions of population rise and fall, plant and animal succession, predator-prey relationships, competition and cooperation, feeding levels, and the flow of energy through ecosystems—and this is just the beginning. I have learned a great deal in my work on the forest issues of western North America over the last few years from people in the field of “Forest Ecology” (sometimes with the help of my older son, Kai Snyder, who is in this field). I have come to better understand the dynamism of natural systems, the continuous role of disturbance, and the unremitting effects of climatic fluctuations. The “human ecology” aspect of the ecological sciences helps us understand the role that human beings have played as members of wild nature, and how the interconnectedness of the entire planet requires that we take care of this place that we live in, and which lives in us. It tells us what “sustainable” means, and that modern humans must again become members of the organic world.

The organic life of the planet has maintained itself, constantly changing, and has gone through and recovered from several enormous catastrophic events over hundreds of millions of years. Now we are realizing that the human impact on air, water, wildlife, soil, and plant life is so extreme that there are species becoming extinct, water dangerous even to touch, mountains with mudslides but no trees, and soil that won’t grow food without the continuous subsidy provided by petroleum. As we learned over time to positively work for peace to head off the possibilities of war, so now we must work for sustainable biological practices and a faith that includes wild nature if we are to reverse the prospect of continually dwindling resources and rising human populations.

One can ask what might it take to have an agriculture that does not degrade the soils, a fishery that does not deplete the ocean, a forestry that keeps watersheds and ecosystems intact, population policies that respect human sexuality and personality while holding numbers down, and energy policies that do not set off fierce little wars. These are the key questions.

Many of our leaders assume that the track we’re on will go forever and nobody will learn much: politics as usual. It’s the same old engineering, business, and bureaucracy message, with its lank rhetoric of data and management. Or, when the talk turns to “sustainability,” the focus is on a limited ecological-engineering model that might guarantee a specific resource for a while longer (like grass, water, or trees) but lacks the vision to imagine the health of the whole planet. The ethical position that would accord intrinsic value to non-human nature, and would see human beings as involved in moral as well as practical choices in regard to the natural world, makes all the difference.

“As …a dewdrop, a bubble, a cloud, a flash of lightning, view all created things.” Thus ends the Diamond Sutra, reminding us of irreducible impermanence. Sustainability cannot mean some kind of permanence. A waggish commentary says, “Sustainability is a physical impossibility. But it is a very nice sentiment.” The quest for permanence has always led us astray—whether building stone castles, Great Walls, pyramids for the kings, great navies, giant cathedrals to ease us toward heaven, or Cold War-scale weapons systems guaranteeing “mutually assured destruction.” We must live with change, like a bird on the wing, and doing so, let all the other beings live on, too. Not permanence, but “living in harmony with the Way.”

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