The Border Between “Us” and “It”
Authored by Austin Kiessig
“There is no distinction between ourselves and the so-called environment. What we live in and from and with doesn’t surround us—it’s part of us. We’re of it and it’s of us, and the relationship is unspeakably intimate.” –Wendell Berry
What’s the story we tell ourselves about our relationship to nature? Us versus it? Clean lines, demarcated territories, occasional encroachments punctuating a relatively stable détente? The newspapers would make us think this way. “Flood ravages farming community”; “wildfires consume housing development”; “shark attacks surfer.” Shots fired across the bow, reminding us that The Wild is lurking just beyond the walls we have built against it. Nature: ever-ready to rain strife upon our ordered existence.
Stories, as it turn out, are important. They shape the way we see the world and define ourselves in it. The narrative that pits us against nature’s directives — or positions us beyond nature’s reach— evolved from a collective reality in which nature’s stock of armaments far outstripped our own. Yet over time, with an exponential increase in resource utilization, engineering sophistication, and exploratory ambition, the balance shifted in humankind’s favor. In America, we settled the West on the shoulders of massive dams whose scale staggered even the brashest visionaries of Manifest Destiny. Our crops flourished in the desert. We engineered buildings against earthquakes, floods, wind, and rain. We erected barriers. We conquered the land.
On a smaller scale, we advanced our defenses against predators, pests, and pestilence. If a living thing harmed our crops, our livestock, or our bodies, we contrived a way to eradicate it. Any creature outside of our perceived corpus fell into one of four categories: threat, food, pet, or afterthought.
We strove to make the fight fair. And then we were winning.
The victory, taken as an amalgamation of successes on multiple fronts, was stunning in its rapidity and scope. We gained unprecedented control over our terrestrial fate. Lifespans were extended, needless deaths averted, painful existences palliated. To all but the cynics, these changes were unequivocally good.
But our newfangled freedom from the Natural Order brought a host of fresh complications. Food webs were pitched into imbalance, and lynchpin species began to die. Resources once thought to be infinite were emptied in the space of a generation. Pollution eddied and pooled. Our entire planet warmed. And we got sick.
At some point, our story started to change along with the shifting relationship between the characters. In our own awareness, we were no longer just another of nature’s playground dupes: we became the schoolyard bully. Tales of our luxuriant slaughter (the passenger pigeon) and images of our prodigal imprudence (the Exxon Valdez spill) proved haunting. Our social ombudsmen hinted that in our quest to evade a life that was nasty, brutish, and short, we had become nasty, brutish, and shortsighted. This was an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth.
We got creative with ways to assuage our guilt. Instead of killing polar bears before they killed us, we featured them in soda commercials and fashioned them as doe-eyed cuties so we could raise money to…save them? We created non-profits, trusts, Whale Wars, and high-minded legislation.
Now, a contemporary class of thinkers whisks up a story that melds the Victim and Bully narratives into something entirely different. Nature and humankind are not distinct, but threads of the same fabric. Our relationship is one of inextricable symbiosis that, if not thoughtfully stewarded, can veer towards parasitism. Our dominance of the Natural Order is, at best, a short-lived tipping of the scales that will, in time, (over)correct. Our myopia cannot serve us well in the historical arc of an ancient world that was born long before us and will long outlive us.
The deeper we dig, the more we find that we are in nature and nature is in us. We see our most noble tenderness in the social loyalty of Humpback whales; our most aspirational ingenuity in the labyrinthine tunnels of ant colonies; and our most unyielding alliances in the microbial confederates that fertilize our soil, produce our food, and protect our bodies.
Indeed, one of modern science’s most exciting exploratory frontiers — the human microbiome — must give us the pause in defining where the border between “us and it” begins and ends. Every human being plays host to ten trillion microbes, which play a more important collective role in our survival than some of our own organs. If 99% of the DNA present in our body belongs to other creatures, did it ever make sense to speak of dividing lines in the first place? Turns out that “us” is “it.”
The new (old) reality is one of ecosystems that blend together and interdependence as a form of freedom. This insight leads us to extend our technological tendrils into the global ecosystem and its microcosms to become better observers, partners, patrons, and saints. We cannot ignore our mandate: cultivate instead of extirpate. We acknowledge that our soil must be fertile for us to be fertile; top predators must remain fed for us to have food; and our newest information systems must be used to preserve the oldest living orders that birthed us.
So, what to think, and how to live? One of the most elemental virtues and curses of human existence is that we are able to entertain contradictions. It is coincidentally true that, at turns, we are part of nature, a sufferer of it, and a persecutor of it. We must, on an individual level, perpetually re-evaluate what we stand for and how our actions support our identity narratives.
Which is where “I Am Coyote” enters the equation. The book is a symphonic stockpile of prose, dedicated to exploring our reverence for, fear of, and integration with nature. In its stories, we delve into hallowed venerations and wretched torments. We revisit these stories so that we are better equipped to live and record our own. They are the music we listen to as we dance. Without them, we are left with scattershot notes and no chords.
“I Am Coyote” is a composition of the highest order. By virtue of its thoughtful curation, it stirs the itinerant soul. Even after the pages have all been turned and dog-eared, they inspire new chapters. When we mark our own experiences in nature by delving into the consciousness of our forebears, we sustain the ecosystem. The integrative bonds deepen. The dance continues.
Photo Credit: David Hanson, www.davidhanson3.com