Hester Brook Retreat

Hester Brook Retreat is an integral ecology project in the South West of Western Australia. This weblog is the experiential record of that project and the participants' reflections on the practice of integral ecology and environmental apithology. The most recent posts are at the top of the page. To follow the full story begin at the Beginning.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Appreciation of the Artinatural

One does not need to wonder too much to predict what may happen as we move deeper into the human construct of the 'complexity of the artifactual'. Gradually, as we make artifacts of our own confusion, the artificial and artifactual will circle back to us, to become the new environment of the actual. In that disconnection from the real we may gradually lose, or at least may reduce, our capacity for discernment and inspiration as embodied humans occupying an intricately important space and place in the ecology of all beings.

Being clear, I find in the virtual, huge leaps of imagination become possible. A world without gravity, constraints of form, which can shrink, be fitted, extrapolated and manipulated creatively to inspire creativity and flights beyond our selves. This is wonderful.

Yet some of us work in more fundamental realms, the realms of sustainable outcomes, resource provisioning, food production security, ecoservices continuity and species preservation. Such realms of the natural also include the capacity for human reflection, the question of what it means to be human, and to live within and 'of' this place. For these questions, that are not yet solely supplied and satisfied by the domain of the trans-human, where does one go for inspiration? To the artificial, to the artificially simple, to the abstract empty page?  

Systems theorist, Sir Geoffery Vickers, being the developer of the concept of human perceptions as an 'appreciative system', considered human nature and our relations to the natural. He recognised that human thought was 'of nature' and this reveals how engagement with the natural inspires thinking that affirms and replenishes the human spirit. He wrote:

“Personally I have a sharper appreciation of nature than of human artifacts. I do not need botany to enable me to enjoy a leaf or a tree, geology to enjoy the color, shape and texture of stone. But either of these experiences will periodically for time to time return me to reflective consciousness to solve some problem, the answer to which will in turn heighten my appreciation.” 
Vickers, G. (Policy Communication and Social Learning) (p. 64)

I too return to nature to discover the answer to problems that perplex me, not to overlay nature on human systems, but simply to find in the appreciation of the natural, a greater appreciation of the tangible that helps with the abstract and intangible forms that human systems enact.

As an example, yesterday as I walked along the brook, crystal clear and babbling in the winter spring fed flows, at one point I noticed a 'difference' in a familiar section of the brook. I thought what I was looking at was two emu eggs that had been pushed by the flood waters into the stream. What I was seeing was how familiar patterns in nature form naturally. This led me to think about causation and creation in the ecology of minds. My revelation was that there is nothing magic in the combinations of the generative.

Like the spinning dome before me, our own conceptions in thought may also get into a pattern of a defensiveness in repeating continuous perturbance, cycling repetitively, especially if left in a context of continuous non-disturbance. Our thoughts then become caught, as if within a mirrored sphere, polished by the movement of many gyrations traversed around and around, while outside not much territory at all has been covered. Years go by and the sphere becomes more perfectly enclosed.

In the pattern before me I also saw the difference between the stream and the eddy, the flow and the spin, the form and the froth and - as always - the non-seeing of these things; only as the relations between.

Nature, more than the artificial and the artifactual, does something unique for me. It provides a way to see into the art-in-the-natural - and in that seeing to see into the artistry within ourselves.

My reflection on this engagement with nature as mediation is:

in nature I find inspiration - and in inspiration I find nature,

finding it to be a continual companion and friend,

... an inter-subjective-impartial-other, assisting each of us continually in the chance discoveries of the human mysteries yet to be found, that are potentially unavailable for discovery in the reflecting back of the stream of the artificiality of our unreflective makings.


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Monday, April 23, 2012

Art of the Small Collapse

There is a passage in my forthcoming book, The Art of the Small Collapse, where I look in detail at our belief about small effects causing big changes - and precisely what is occurring. The work of panarchy theorists Gunderson and Holling (1986, 2002) (and so many others) has been so inspiring in this regard. However, when walking around a real live ecology, I can't help but think back to Herbert Simon's own characterisation of complex systems.

Simon (1962) in The Architecture of Complexity writes how a complex system is 'made up of a large number of parts that interact in a non-simple way' where it is 'not a trivial matter to infer the properties of the whole'. While this may not sound too insightful, Simon introduces the concept of 'frequency of connections between subsystems'. In noticing how cross-scalar interactions make a system robust or vulnerable based on its architecture we learn that complexity is more than layers of temporality determined by a human agency.

For me, in an immersed practice of eco-ethnography I see in the lightening strike that fells a tree on the outer boundaries of the forested areas, a ten tonne branch that falls complete with the smallest of borer holes as if shedding a diseased limb, or the small vehicle compression that in four seasons becomes a drainage pattern that weakens the rootholds marginally and fells a tree of great stature in the first flash flooding by the minimalism of erosion; that the forest is full of cataclysmic release events. Around me on each inspection is (to use the counterpoint from the book) the 'Anarchy of the large fail'.

Yet each of these in a way can be seen as non-normal events, and in the context of the usual, cyclic and predictable - seemingly unusual. The 'art of the small collapse' is the exposure in robustness to perturbation as a means of learning in recognition. To learn from the category of events that trigger change, is to learn in anticipation of learning.

What we find is our capacity for this is dependent on the 'reticulation'  (to use Koestler's (1967) phrase) of flexible networks in place in the complexity of the architecture of our own perception. The desire for the simplest, cascades up to incompleteness. The foresee-ability of inevitability recedes with each diminishment of proclivity for the inconsequential once neglected.

I suppose this is why gradually I have sought to be sure of less and open to knowing more. To an allowance of attending, rather than a directing of attention. This release of self-assurance involves the practice of constant humiliation, which as David Whyte reminds us, is what brings us closest to the humus of the very ground beneath the house of our own belonging.

So, I go and 'worship in the church of dirt' (to use a good friend's poignant phrase), to be grimy, intimate and humbled by the forest in its immense complexity. Knowing each action, intervention and presence brings both an ignoring - and on occasion a small perturbation - that in its unfamiliarity enacts a large-ness in the ongoing collapse of my own integrity.

Then, as if in speech to me by way of receptive instruction, I watch the evening sunset being vivid and wonder at the many forms of growth and destruction around me. This is classroom time, a lecture from nature in the close of the day of learning in reception.

I watch unexpecting as a cloud forms, as a pond disturbed by the ripple of my question, which becomes the Australian continent which I feel is struggling with its own rural-thriving and environmental preservation, which like a Zen koan then opens to an Ox Herding picture of no-more-knowing, before fading into a question mark, a crescent moon, a drop, fading to nada and the impermanence of the phenomena of my own perception.

How nice to be humbled as the dusk fades and the night stars come out. It seems I am told by the sky what I most want to know about. 

The practice of seeing the changing light each time a-new, offers to me questions - and today, an answer, (plainly) in view.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Umwelten Unexplored

I took this photo of a dragonfly this summer's day. It took some time, using a 300 mm lens at a distance of 8 feet, handheld in a crouch by the side of the brook, in flickering sunlight. To take that shot would be impossible, with the speed of the dragonfly's flight and the instability of thc photographer's gaze. Yet, I had one small thing on my side. The process of Umwelt inquiry.

In Jakob von Uexkull's poetic essay A Stroll Through the World of Animals and Men (1934) a remarkable portrayal of the self-worlds of many creatures is described. I am not sure that other more technical accounts of biosemiotic analysis since have quite captured the richness of this understanding. In this short and intimate narrative Uexkull illuminates the processes of consciousness formation, particular to a species and unique to the history of each individual, in layers of complexity and with great simplicity.

He draws subtle and important distinctions between the receptor, perceptor and effector - cells, organs, signs, cues and planes. These are organized into moods, tones, times, periods, horizons, pathways, territories, zones, spheres and experiences. The formation of search images, search tones, magical and imaginal, instinctual and experiential familiarities occur in an inter-linking of sequential and non-sequential functional cycles. The difficulties of translation aside, the quality of understanding is still richer than other accounts of the different worlds of animals and men.

This raises a question of the nature of mind. At what stage is the formation of Umwelt simple neuro-reactors and at what stage can we say that there is mind (a uniquely human invention) that provides a goal, or even to use Uexkull' s distinction, a plan? Is the mind of man really that different to the mind of the jackdaw or crow. How many of us, particularly in relation to our work in nature, have a real goal, as opposed to a functional plan disguised as intention contained within and formed by our own unique Umwelt?

I watch my dragonfly for countless minutes, perhaps for an hour, perhaps two. Another seemingly just like it, holds a different pattern of praying for prey nearby. The first circles repeatedly in a changing pattern, returning in a figure eight to the similar place in the stream, where the light shows against the water particular objects, and the height of that location above the stream alters rhythmically. The second dragonfly circles the opposite way, choosing to alight on a log, being able to see from below whatever actual or imaginal search images above, highlighted in the sun. Both are protected from becoming prey to some extent in their rituals of movement and pause.

The dragonfly before me recalls the observation made by Uexkull:

"If a dragonfly flits towards a branch to perch on it, the branch not only exists as a receptor image in its world, but is also distinguished by a sitting tone, which marks it above all other branches." (p. 49)

What they are seeing, I cannot know. But can it be discovered ... ? The secrets lie in the forms of our inquiry. Not only in the collection of distinct and integral, diverse and necessary components, but in their dynamic coupling as a whole process.

Uexkull was less convinced that we could, even with this understanding of the dynamic interactions in multiple spatiotemporal functional cycles of meaning and structurally coupled experientially formed and instinctually informed cues, discover the entirety of these worlds, concluding:

"Should one attempt to combine her objective qualities, chaos would ensue. And yet all these diverse Umwelten are harboured and borne by the One that remains forever barred to all Umwelten. Behind all the worlds created by Him, there lies concealed, eternally beyond the reach of knowledge, the subject - Nature." (p.80)

When I think of the entire range of species and individual histories in this one ecology, or one pond, or one small frame within my camera lens, so many stories which mostly do not include an awareness of the presence of man, the responsibility for unobtrusiveness in nature, in the many other worlds of animals and men, is made clearer to me.

I take my photograph as a means of documenting this day and depart. I will return in a year's time hence to see how the dragonfly flights of, not fancy, but great meaning, may have changed once more in their patterns of dance and chance.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Phantasmagorical Phascogales

It is strange when you come across a creature you don't recognize in a landscape that is familiar. It is a bit like a dream, where something occurs in your imagination that appears real, yet is not.

On discovering that there is a brush-tailed phascogale (phascogale tapoatafa) population at Hester Brook, I was a bit surprised, not having seen one of these previously common (now near threatened) native marsupials before.

The phascogale is an exemplar in Australian adaptiveness, and extreme vulnerability, in light of introduced species (such as man). The tuan or wambenger (as they are known) are uniquely designed arboreal feeders and breeders for the South West Jarrah forest, provided it is not fragmented.

The forest area at Hester Brook (where this little guy was found) is perfectly suited for them, with open understory, many older hollow trees and good insect life. Being a 60 hectare property this is the ideal territory size for the female and the fact that the block is connected by migration corridors allows suiter males to travel in the breeding season to find a female. As the males only live for a year and die shortly after breeding, and the females live only up to three years, disruption in the breeding migration corridors means local populations quickly diminish.

Reading the summary of the description other interesting facts include:

When alarmed, the brush-tailed phascogale taps its forefeet repeatedly against the bark of a tree.

Females may live to three years in the wild by which time their canine teeth are blunt and their incisors worn nearly to the gum.

The brush-tailed phascogale is an agile tree climber, and its hind foot can be rotated 180 degrees at the ankle to aid it with its climbing.

What a tenuous hold in the landscape these perfectly adapted tree climbers have ...

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Monday, September 07, 2009

Barriers and Bridges

Panarchy theory originator, C.S. Holling (1995), in his essay on Barriers and Bridges to the Renewal of Ecosystems and Institutions describes four belief systems about nature, and an emerging fifth conception. Each relates to a different mental model of how stability and change naturally occurs in nature using different causal assumptions. They are:

Nature Cornucopian ~ smooth exponential growth (endogenous abundance through human ingenuity)

Nature Anarchic ~ hyperbolic increase and collapse (inevitability in unconscious cycles of increase and decline)

Nature Balanced ~ logistic growth and plateau (conscious response to an environment to mitigate and find equilibrium)

Nature Resilient ~ nested collapse and renewal (cycles of creative destruction in reformations of organisation for efficiency)

Nature Evolving ~ evolutionary transformation (novel adaptation in systems of interdependent emergence)

Holling examines these beliefs, finding each is correct, and partial. Each is a truth story made out by the evidence with 'compelling lines of causal explanation'. So how to separate out the science from the fiction in the myth of the real? Holling suggests (p. 16):

"With every issue having supportive evidence and contrary counterevidence (all legitimate), the issues seem to involve no independent reality of nature, only moral issues that can be debated."

What then is nature's character? In choosing a predictive model what scale of complexity, level of inevitability and role of human ingenuity will we select? In managing 'nature' what projection of our own nature is the reality we seek to make real?

What I do know is each partial truth of what nature can and must do is an accurate reflection of each individual's own assumptions about human nature and what it is believed we can collectively do. For the describers of human pathology in its inability to live responsively in a complex ecology, their truth is correct. For the panarchy theorist who believes for survival we must learn observation and flexibility to respond adaptively, their truth is correct. For the resource rationalists who sees destruction as a necessary reconfiguration of utilisation in cycles of optimisation, their truth is correct.

Nature is compliant in reflecting all these truths. Yet, within this discussion is a meta-ethical discussion. If the only novel truth is that we can potentially choose the myths we live by as incontrovertible truths, what is the truth that nature would have us choose?

Perhaps we should ask - but perhaps only if we are prepared to listen.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In Search of Nature - the Fourth Nature

In the pivotal book for engagement in ecological work, Integral Ecology, Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Michael Zimmerman propose the use of three post-modern conceptions of nature. They are 'NATURE', 'Nature' and 'nature'. Drawing these distinctions is difficult, but worthwhile.

These types of distinctions have been the significant contribution of an Integral discourse, allowing us to see what we mean and understand what it is that we say. Grounded in a lineage of philosophical distinctions these signifers allow us to describe what we are experiencing by clarifying the signified. From this, the potential for a more integral discourse results.

The authors explicate the three natures  (derived from SES p. 491 -499) as follows:

NATURE ~ The Great Nest of Being (Kosmos' interiors and exteriors )
Nature ~ The Great Web of Life (exterior domains of the Kosmos)
nature ~ The Great Biosphere (the exterior and interior domains of the experienced world, at a sensory rather than cultural or conceptual level)

The distinction drawn is that in our experience of 'nature' as the biosphere - the human mental, conceptual, cultural and social domains (i.e. the noosphere) are not to be included, making the biosphere distinct from the human experience of it. It becomes an object other. Wilber (1995) describes the dynamics of the pathology of separation of interiors and exteriors as 'the ego-camps absolutized the noosphere while the eco-camps absolutized the noosphere'.  This reveals the fourth nature in the taxonomy to provide the correlate to the eros-agape/interior-exterior divide as:

Nature - The Great Council of All Beings (interior domains of the Kosmos) being the WE that corresponds to the exteriors of the Web of Life independent of our own experiencing of it  ~  (spoken to with great presence  last week by deep ecologist, John Seed, who was visiting).  

However, in a recent trip to Hester Brook I recognized how my intimacy with this place continues to increase, and (I would like to believe) its intimacy with me. In conversations with colleagues I recognize a fifth  'nature' that exists in my experience informed by integral ecology injunctions, although this doesn't appear for me in the theory.

It is very difficult to describe. It would be called Nature (with the N underscored) to denote a first person identity. This is the Nature with whom I relate to as a member participant. Not a unity with the Kosmos, and not its world of surfaces, and not merely my experiencing of communion with the contents of the biosphere, and not the cultural correlates to the web of life ... more an intimacy of recognition with the bios ~ with life itself.

I suppose this could be equated by an external observer to the ancient personifications of Mother Nature or Pan spirits, but an ethnographically constructed mythic or projected persona is not adequate to describe this. It is also distinctly different to the many subtle and spiritual energies which influence the mood of the land. It is not one of the union states of the twenty four nature mysticisms. What I am experiencing is a second person, a sentient other. It is also a conversation. Not a conversation with a personification, more a conversation of sentience.

In Integral Theory terms, this is not allowed. It is a valid experience, but not seeable within its terms. Being a theory of individual consciousness, the dominant monad is primarily identified ontologically with the individual. The Kosmos is ontologically dependent on the I. The collective as presence has no individual sentience. There are only individual senients who come together in a collective ecology and provide multi-scalar levels of meanings, perceivable by us as the supposedly more aware species in the ecology as overlapping intersubjectivities. Theoretically, this Nature as other is only my first person experience of the second person phenomena of the collective interiorities of 'nature' in the LL (Lower Left Quadrant). This experience I have is permitted, but is seen as a naive distortion of the reality disclosed and disclosable by the theory. 

This raises a question for me. If I have difficulty describing my experience in the structure of the theory, should I change my experiencing, or is a theory only useful up to the point of its purposes? Who is this Nature that has a distinct, yet subtle, presence? Is Integral Theory with its emphasis of human individual knowing the appropriate ontology to perceive how other sentience (in the collective) discloses itself?  Is a theory in astutely and coherently describing the fact of the separation from nature, able to describe the Nature from which it assumes separation? 

Perhaps this intimacy it is only the Left Hand EGO correlate to ECO's Nature - the Great Web seen as to its interiors, yet that is not my experience of the Thou with surfaces seen. Also, while intimately connected with Spirit, it is not equatable to the familiar personless experiences of Spirit manifest or unmanifest. We may navigate the pre-trans fallacy and in meeting trans-personal Spirit deny the Other of its infinite expression of the capacity for intimacy. The assumption of post- negates the prospect for an apriori present presence. The central tenet of individual ascendency in Integral Theory obscures so many other available aperspectival ontologies.   

Biologist E.O. Wilson going In Search of Nature names one counterpart to 'nature' as human nature (perhaps 'natureH'), being the human component of the noosphere as both interiors and exteriors that makes us distinct from our biological co-habitants:

"The first is nature, that part of the world we think is beyond us, having no need of us, and yet is the cradle of our species. The second is human nature, our essence, the way we were in the beginning, comprising those sensory and emotional capacities that join humanity into one species as surely as language and ethic custom divides us into tribes. ...I argue that the only way to make complete sense of either is by examining both closely and together as products of evolution. ... We need this longer view, I believe, not only to understand our species but more firmly to secure its future." - In Search of Nature (1996)

What does the conversation between these two natures look like? How many Natures do we need actually need? What is the discourse that describes the relations between them?

And this is the dilemma we face with every model of the world experienced ... how it reveals and also hides the world from our experiencing ... at the same time.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Why Don't I Cry When a Monoculture Dies

They harvested the blue gum plantation in the adjoining property. Not quite the Serenity.Simplicity.Sanctury I usually experience in this region, yet the plantation was destined to go sometime.

The crop didn't quite look fully mature. I wonder if the reason for this frenetic removal was to liquidate some inventory assets to generate capital, as with the collapse of the prescribed interest tax deductible forestry industry, change is occuring fast in the vulnerability of the industry's own unsustainability. In any event, the plantation timber that crested the skyline has now gone.

This process is like watching The War of the Worlds as four crews of harvest machines work methodically across the landscape. Take everything and return the land to empty soil, efficiently. In fact, in two 20 hour shifts (as they rumble into the foggy night) the entire 10 year plantation is gone with no real sign there was ever life of any sort there. I wonder what will be the strategy for renewal after the coppice crop. I wonder what the land will do left alone to do what it will.

With the previous experience of seeing an old growth forest felled and the desolation that resonates from it, this form of renewable timber industry (despite the water interception issues and loss of opportunity to restore diversity) provides a very viable alternative. A celebration is called for.

In seeing the silent rows of trees (for they were not a forest) disappear I shed not an emotion for their loss. While the abundant activity on this side of the fenceline seemed not to even notice the felling across the 20 metre sprayed and graded firebreak buffer, the whole process was strangely fascinating in a macabre way to me.

Then, of course, I heard it. Possibly only days later was it recognized. A deep subsonic low moaning, a resonant echo of both the trees and the systems of microbe life in limited diversity that existed in that form of man-made ecology. There is a loss, it is just harder to hear. It is there in the level of hearing of the root stock as it dies.

And that is perhaps the reflection. Our new renewable ethics, like in history before, are not better, just less discernible as to their conflict. This is the ethic of ethical deafness. What cannot be heard, does not have a voice.

Move along now ... nothing here to hear.

Would anything have even happened, had I not been an accidental witness.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Fifth Phase

It is interesting to reflect on the initial four phases of the first four years of this project so far. It is perhaps the pause for reflection that marks the significance of this approach to ecological restoration (and such an absence of visible intervention). The four phases discerned can be loosely described as:

First Phase - Experiencing of Self
Second Phase - Informing in Object
Third Phase - Engaging in Self and Object
Fourth Phase - Generating Object from Self

First Year ~ For the whole first year of the project there was simply observation. Touch nothing, disturb nothing, record nothing, intervene in nothing. Simply experience without preconception. The intention was to resist objectification, not using the pattern of labeling to hide the landscape from oneself. Weeds were seen, degrading of waterways were noted, but primarily the landscape changed continuously in awareness with generative surprise as its many seasons and forms unfolded during the year. The main observation then was not of the landscape , but watching one's own mind form a reality that previously did not have this witness. Simply, a holding back of conception and an observation of the mind of prior perception.

Second Year ~ The second phase was of engaged observation with no intervention. In this phase integral ecology principles were so useful to disclose multiple aspects of the landscape, a baseline of consciously taken perspectives in a number of specific dimensions. A few thousand grid coordinates were taken to generate a dimensional analysis and 3D map. Sites of weed infestation were logged, species identified, opinions sought, history researched, photo records taken, fenceline breaks found, stories heard and fires risks noted. Again - no intervention. Nothing was touched. Yet there was an intervention. There was the active formation of projection. Enaction of a reality of perception. This is perhaps the greatest footprint we form onto a land. The imposition of (albeit an integrally informed) conception.

Third Year ~ The third phase notes the shift into emergent meaning. This is seeing the landscape as an emergent phenomenon. The experiences of the first phase informed by the observations of the second phase allow for the discernment of transition and direction in the third phase. Groves of banksias emerge healthy, others recede in possible indicators of dieback disease (or simply age). Introduced species make burrows and become a predator's focus who enters and both then vanish again. Fenceline intrusions embattle the landscape and the capacity for resilence (or its absence) is observed in the riparian degradations. Priorities appear. Actions are formed. There is a release of meaning made. The end of this phase marks the beginning of small interventions, using highly aware observation of what was or might be occuring. Small steps, trial treatments, micro-managements and ... observation of the impacts of one's own presence.

Fourth year ~ This is the phase of reflexive learning. Seeing differences made and success in weed management and the absence of other interventions having no discernable effect on an ecology in balance or allowing outbreaks by omission in systems of imbalance. Expanded trials begin of the weed management where experience, moves to assessment, to engagement to active experimentation and informed management. Intimacy results as the stabilities and changes occur. This signifies a shift from the observational to the apithological in terms of the visible.

and then ... there is a fifth phase,

Fifth Phase - Generating Self with Object

Fifth year ~ What alters in all of this is the caretakers role. How do we define care? How do we define ourself? What is the inquiry necessary to discover the co-enactment of that? What is being asked? Who more importantly is doing the asking? The emergent generation of meaning in reciprocal engagement of self with land and land in self asks many questions. It is the answers to these that must be known if we are to move knowingly past simple stages of stabilisation. How does the land change us and how are we changing the land?

The Art of Science

One of the most remarkable artist's work I have ever been kindly given is a Celia Rosser print from the collection of botanical drawings that are a significant part of her life's work. Her botanical paintings in The Banksias series, documenting all known forms of this 40 million year old species, has taken three decades to complete.

Celia Rosser is one of Australia's great botanical artists. She has been recognised nationally and internationally, with an award from the Linnaean Society of London, an Order of Australia and an honorary Master of Science degree and doctorate from Monash University.

It was with some joy recently that I visited the Rosser Gallery on a trip to Wilson's Promontory in Victoria. The third folio was on display which included the species Banksia Seminuda, one of three at Hester Brook (the others being Banksia Littoralis and Banksia Grandis).

With over 60 of the 78 major genus of the species of Banksia endemic to South Western Australia it is pleasant to see this small fragment of a wider body of knowledge captured in art and preserved in life. The naming of the new rare arid species of Banksia found in 2000 as the Banksia Rosserae, after the artist herself, is a testament to a life's work in the intersection between botantical science and inspiring art.

banksia rosserae

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


I am interested in the human response to global warming. The more innocuous term climate change was adopted politically sometime ago as being less dramatic and to take the force out of the ecological preservationist lobby's debate. However, for myself, I fear climate change much, much more.

For anyone who has seen climate range graphs showing the warming trend, the alarm is not in the overall mean temperature rise that now seems inevitable, but in the massive seasonal variances. Having disturbed the equilibrium, it is the dis-equilibrium we should be observing, not the transition to the new steady state.

In mid-June we had a -5.7 degree frost (measured 20km away) being the coldest minimum on record. That one event in half an hour wiped out between 200-300 peppermint trees, some of them quite mature. The shape of the property acted like a big ice cube tray and stressed the entire species below a certain contour line.

To my delight and hoping, in November 90% generated new growth. Their resilience, the 'ability to recover from a setback or recover shape after a compression', was sufficient this year. But that was a one in 100 year event. What if it becomes annual? What will be the effect on this years new growth? What if that extreme is only the beginning?

I think we may have missed the point. While the long term effects of global warming will definitely be dramatic and threatening, the immediate impacts of the variable climate may already be here. For humans seeking certainty and predictability our response to this extreme variability will say a lot about our own evolutionary progress and adaptability.

Here's hoping that we do as well as the trees.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Mr Beetle


I was just reading biologist E. O. Wilson’s essays “In Search of Nature” and it led me to think how we search for nature.

He estimated previously that there are over 42,000 vertebrate species that have been described and over 990,000 invertebrates also identified. There may be as many as 10 million invertebrate species – and perhaps only 4000 mammals.

Of the invertebrates over 290,000 are beetles – four times as many as all the vertebrates combined.

While we look to the megafauna and complex higher animals, in every tiny niche is another species of ant, beetle, bug or aquatic swimmer. The species of spiders for each of these niches is not far behind.

He writes: For each hectare of Brazilian rainforest there may be a few dozen birds and couple of mammals but well over one billion invertebrates. Of the dry mass of animal tissue, 93% of the biomass is invertebrates and a third alone are the ants and termites.

I wonder what the proportions would be for Hester Brook? My guess is that they would not be that different. That is why I am continuously amazed at the depth and span of the ecological diversity in this one small patch of land.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Kind Teachers

In an integral ecology approach we learn from all our kind teachers. We draw from the depths of the well of knowledge and drink deeply. In doing so we can taste from ecopsychology, environmental phenomenology, deep ecology, environmental anthropology, ecofeminism, environmental ethics, environmental hermeneutics, biophenomenology, biological and ecological empirical sciences, social autopoiesis, population ecology, sociocybernetics, ecosemiotics, interspecial phenomenology (Hargens 2004) - and even apithology.

Yet within all this knowledge from all these ways of knowing we are always left thirsting for more. This is because in all our learning we may sometimes neglect our real teachers.

In response to the question of ultimate knowledge, Siddhartha speaks to his old friend Govinda of this and of his teacher:

"There was a man at this ferry who was my predecessor and teacher. He was a holy man who for many years believed only in the river and nothing else. He noticed that the river’s voice spoke to him. He learned from it; it educated and taught him. The river seemed like a god to him and for many years he did not know that every wind, every cloud, every bird, every beetle is equally divine and knows and can teach just as well as the esteemed river. But when this holy man went off into the woods, he knew more than you and I, without teachers, without books, just because he believed in the river.(Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse - 1950)

In the search for knowledge, we do not need to look far at all ...

In all existence is found truth ...

All existence is then my teacher ...

Sunday, July 16, 2006


Jared Diamond nails it in relation to Australia in Chapter 13 of his book Collapse. While the book and his analysis has much greater complexity, his five point framework explains the unease the agricultural community feels in Australia.

"Eventually, I arrived at a five-point framework of possible contributing factors that I now consider in trying to understand any punitive environmental collapse. Four of those sets of factors - environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors and friendly trade partners - may or may not prove significant for a particular society. The fifth set of factors - the society's responses to its environmental problems - always proves significant." (Diamond, J. 2005:11)

The resilience of a system, being its tolerances in its system dynamics, makes up a big part of the outcome of the stories he re-tells from around the world and across time. By looking at sets of factors, Diamond's work moves into the field of apithology.

The South West of Western Australia gets a special mention in Diamond's global analysis. In the poker game of global death we have a five card straight. Environmental damage in the form of land clearing has led to salinity and soil degradation (which may take 100 years to reverse). Our economic structures make oil dependent phosphate fertilizers vital for our yield. The price gained for that yield is dependent on export demand. Our friendly trade partners are also the major oil producers and consumers. Export partner conflict with those oil producers raises prices. Oil dependent transport costs are a major variable on demand, prices and profitability. A low and late rainfall year or a high oil price year completes the straight. The lucky country holding the low cards loses. We have systematically reduced our own environmental, economic and social system's resilience.

The fifth factor, the human society's response, should then be our main focus. As Diamond says, this response is dependent on political, economic, social and cultural values. Understanding these dynamics involves the study of how human societies think, being the emergent aspects of societal consciousness (the one factor we know least about and the one not covered by Diamond).

As the triggering factors come into play, the tight knot we have created for ourselves, becomes a tightening noose. What we do not know is how we will respond to this stranglehold.

I suppose that is why Hester Brook Retreat is here. To discover that.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Pathology and the Bios

It is interesting how quickly we forget. The first dimension of apithology is to preserve what is. Find the desired in the existing state and protect it - before doing anything else.

On returning to HBR (Hester Brook Retreat) after an absence it was clear the adjacent farm's livestock had entered through a fallen fence. This happily solved the problem of restoration. Monoculture had been returned and now there was nothing to preserve. The riparian zones with natural re-growth were once again treacherous mud. A good feed had been had. Open pasture had been too tempting at the end of the longest driest period on record.

I had failed to look carefully enough at the first dimension. The lesson is well learned. There is no point doing restoration work or enhancement unless there is a means in place to protect what exists. Find the cause of decline, the pathology of the bios, and remove this cause first, before looking to the dynamics of wellness. As they say, good fences make good neighbours.

We are finding this in integral ecology work. Years of work for the preservation of habitats are about to be wiped out by global warming and the loss of transmigration corridors. More fools us. We allowed the causes of degradation to continue while mistakenly working on restoration. There is no naivety in integral ecology work. Only increasing humility. And so we learn.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Taking and Making

I saw a slogan the other day describing our modern society. It said the four stages of our existence were: Take - Make - Use - Waste

It is quite terrifying really. In a world of finite natural capitals and unlimited population growth we have only a limited time here. No where on Earth is exempt. Where the Take philosophy occurred at Hester Brook Retreat is obvious. The abandoned loggers railway runs right through the property and the 600 year old growth now gone is slowly and naturally being replaced by re-growth.

The question must always be asked: If that is how our thinking is now, what would the apithological re-frame be?

The answer is easy. The four apithological stages of human existence are: Observe - Conserve - Produce - Replace

1. Observe - We see a natural abundance and before we Take we Observe what else relies on it, for nature wastes nothing.
2. Conserve - Before we Make we decide what are our real needs and Conserve every part (ie. materials, energy, capital, time, spirit etc.).
3. Produce - Instead of Use, we take what we need to Produce enduring value.
4. Replace - To complete the cycle we do not Waste but instead Replace to put back what we have Taken.

It is only with this thinking that plentitude and abundance can exist in a human-needs based world! To think otherwise must mean that we do not plan to be here long.

"Sustainability is acting with good grace like we plan to stay"

- Stephen Forsyth

Friday, March 31, 2006

Darwin In the Field

Chapter III of Darwin's The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races In the Struggle For Life is like a favourite piece of music to me. If I had to listen to this over and over a hundred times, I would only hear more. It is the opus that sings to us of the complexity of ecosystems and how they are both beautiful and tragic. The closing words are like a coda to Mozart's Requiem.

Last week Darwin came to visit Hester Brook. As we were leaving we noticed that the single Cottonbush I had seen a month before was now twenty plants spread far and wide with several in flower. Knowing it was a prolific weed, what to do in this moment? I hesitated. The ignorance of our understanding of connections gave rise to this moment of uncertainty. There we were, witnessing in the field (with Darwin's ghost looking over my shoulder) all that Darwin had described when he said:

"It is good for us to try in imagination to give to any one species an advantage over another. Probably in no single instance should we know what to do. This ought to convince us of our ignorance on the mutual relations of all organic beings; a conviction as necessary, as it is difficult to acquire."

Who knows the factors that had given rise to this proliferation. One seed had perhaps come from the stockfeed in the old hay shed, moved to the open field by an Emu (who had left evidence of its forage there). The seed had received the unseasonal rain and grew, sending delicate tufted seeds across the cleared area. With no cattle to mow them down, mature plants had appeared almost instantaneously and now with them the Monarch and Wanderer butterflies aggregated in a beautiful ballet of pollination.

We left one mature plant (removing the seed pods) and moved the voracious juvenile caterpillars to this one plant for their feed. The Cottonbush when introduced had brought the Monarch's to Australia, but the butterflies do not eradicate the weed, nor keep it in check. One's struggle for existence is the other's also. They are friends - not foes.

And my thoughts still go to our ignorance in introducing any species to Australia after Darwin's precautions and our healthy continuing hesitation in bringing their predators too.

"Many cases are on record showing how complex and unexpected are the checks and relations between organic beings, which have to struggle together in the same country. Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of the species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount." - Charles Darwin 1859

How deaf we are to the words of wisdom.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


We have a predator. In November 2004 a scattering of feathers in two locations showed an unwelcome visitor had dropped in for lunch. There had been no kills since. Because of the remote location and the success of the CALM control programs domestic ferals were not previously a problem. It seems our itinerant resident has returned in January 2006 with four more occurrences. This invisible intruder raises some interesting questions. The first is could the location be fenced to exclude cats and foxes? Because the property is a corridor, open movement through its boundaries is essential. An Island is not a sustainable system. The second is why do we treasure things with feathers over things with fangs? We should pause here and ask could the intruder be native and its prey introduced? Until the CSI unit finds our killer, the jury cannot not decide whose true nature we should protect. In the meantime, something is snacking in the sanctuary.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Pond Watching

The first question asked about the property was always "What are you going to do with it?" The answer was fairly clear to me. Nothing initially. Touch nothing and just watch - for at least a year. The study of the environment is essential for our understanding of it. It helps also to understand the student. Where once we would not look to the environment at all - now we rush too quickly to apply what we know. The first practice is to observe. From that we can also observe ourselves. Thoreau found this at Walden. Find knowledge humility before beginning and take the time to watch the pond.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." - Henry David Thoreau

Reality Imagined

On returning to the property for the first time as owner there was a sense of trepidation. I expected that the heat of summer would have turned that which was green to brown and the flowing creek to but a trickle. But the return did not reveal a snake and leech filled marsh but instead hundreds of wanderer butterflies emerging and a completely different dominant ecology with the seasonal change. The brook was flowing well underneath still waters. The first exploration revealed large areas untouched, forests of beauty and more weed infestations. Things were both worse and better than expected. The reality now experienced embraced the good, the beautiful and the true. It was that moment when I ceased to be the owner and became the caretaker of this place.

Parallel Worlds

Between offering to buy the property and settlement I had been to Colorado to participate in the first Integral Ecology and Sustainability Seminar run by the Integral Institute. The wilderness beauty and built environment of the Rocky Mountains created a stark reality for me. Roadway and mountain range meet - with no buffers. This is reflected also in Australia. Development and preservation have distinct lines (visible from space). We are a part of - and apart from - nature and our nature. The Americans have the outdoors and Australians have the outback. Nature is something we visit. It is also something we have. Where the two meet is where integral ecology begins.

First Impressions

First impressions of the location were that it was not suitable. I had been looking for a manageable sized property, remote from, but close enough to a regional centre, one with waterways access and adjacent to forest reserve. The road entrance to this location was overgrown and impassable. The fenceline was in disrepair. Stock feeding had degraded the cleared acreage and oats and weeds had taken over this section. There was no vehicle access. Hiking into the property I found the brook was choked and large sections were unreachable through the dense blackberry infestation. There was a decrepit corrugated iron hay shed and some old building rubbish. The property had been completely ignored for a decade. It was of course perfect!


Hester Brook Retreat was purchased in December 2004 to create a dedicated location for the applied practice of integral ecology. The journey began on the far West Coast of Western Australia and with a swag, skillet, billy, kayak, hiking boots and a selection of 1:50,000 maps I headed east with the intention to keep exploring until I could find something affordable. After 7 days and over 50 locations Hester Brook Retreat was found by acccident.