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Wild Ethics

Fri, May 29th, 2009
Posted in Commentary

The cyclist, earphones in his ears, zooms by me, looking neither right or left, intent on speed and endurance and I wonder why he bothers to bike on this section of the Harmony / Preston Trail that runs along Camp Creek where fish swim and through woods where wildflowers bloom and the birdsong never ends. Why ride here among all this beauty and music and not see or hear it? We humans have so many devices--bicycles, fishing rods, boats, guns, ATVs, snowmobiles, radios, recreational vehicles, bats and balls--we think we must have to enjoy the outdoor world.

When I walk this trail, the people I see are mostly on bikes, some are running, very few are walking like me, admittedly with my own device, a pair of binoculars. I would miss my binoculars, but would still enjoy a leisurely walk listening to robins, rose-breasted grosbeaks, yellow warblers, orioles; seeing an orange and black redstart flitting among branches, a fox squirrel, golden in the sun, a spider spinning a web outlined by drops of dew, patches of ginger, rue anemones and wild geraniums; or feeling the magical touch of fog and then suddenly the warm sun at my back.

Recently I attended a presentation at Luther College by David Abram, a cultural ecologist, philosopher and performance artist, who is the founder of the Alliance for Wild Ethics (, a group of individuals and organizations working to ease environmental devastation through a transformation of culture that looks back to a time of human integration with the non-human world and forward to the possibility of that integration occurring again.

Abram is the author of "The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World" (Pantheon / Vintage) and he spoke about these subjects in his presentation. An encounter with growling, aggressive sea-lions while in his kayak far from human habitation suggested to Abram that he might be in real trouble until he tried communicating with the creatures by swaying and singing a chant and the sea-lions swayed back. Those of us who have pets know the significance of interspecies communication. Bird enthusiasts know that different species will respond to humans mimicking their songs. Some of us believe that our plants respond to our presence.

As part of its work to integrate humans with the non-human world, the Alliance for Wild Ethics promotes oral cultures in the belief that our literate and digital culture, necessarily abstract, separates us from direct, sensory encounters in our immediate environment. The organization does not advocate giving up the abstraction of the written word, but encourages telling of stories like the traditional oral stories told by earlier cultures that carried within their adventures all the accumulated knowledge regarding how to thrive in a particular region. In the absence of the written word, the landscape itself, such as a particular cliff or creek, was the necessary trigger for remembering a story, as were encounters with animals like a hummingbird or a coyote.

When left to itself, the literate abstract intellect easily forgets its dependence upon the earth, becomes oblivious to its sensuous surroundings and neglects the more-than-human world, resulting in pollution, global warming, habitat destruction, and the extinction of non-human entities such as birds, bats, insects and plants.

When we pay attention to the limestone bluffs that consist of once animate creatures, listen to tree branches squeaking (speaking) in the wind, watch a toad hopping through the grass, notice the softness of rain on our skin, smell the approach of rain, taste the shocking sweetness of a wild raspberry, when we take the time necessary, minus our various playthings, to be aware of such things, then we know we are part of the wild world, the more-than-human reality that sustains us. "Acknowledging the enigmatic otherness that things display when we meet them in the depths of the present moment enables an attentive and ethical comportment in all our endeavors, an empathic attunement to our surroundings and a compassionate intention to do least harm." (Alliance for Wild Ethics)

We need not give up our bicycles, binoculars, books or computers, but to save our environment and the earth itself, we do need to take time to be in and acknowledge our membership in a world that is more than ourselves.

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