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.

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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