Notes from the Chiricahua Desert

by Mar 15, 2020

3/15/2020 – Tucson, AZ

Imagine a roundabout. You know, those increasingly prolific traffic management schemes that involve driving counterclockwise in a circle to proceed in any direction. Over this past week, thanks to Orion Magazine and the Omega Institute, we were at the center of a roundabout of our own – a place of many paths converging.  

Ecologically we were in the center of 5 ecosystems, nested on one of the “Sky Island” uplifts that link the Sierra Madre of Mexico with the Rocky Mountains. The ecosystems on our particular island, the Chiricahua Mountains, are home to fabulous array of distinct animal and plant life. We were introduced to it by Geoff Bender, the director of the American Museum of Natural History’s southwestern research station.

The research station was at the center of the traffic circle where we joined with about 50 other people to think and learn together. Leading inward and outward were pathways of wildlife biology, plant biology, geology, ecopsychology, archaeology. And during this particular week, literary genius in poetry and prose.

Here’s a small sample of what we heard and learned.

Projection. Jill, a radiologist M.D. sat across the table, a plate of eggs in front of her She and Mary were comparing notes on the experience of being misread as women in positions of authority. The subject of projection came up. Together we started considering how normal it is to tell ourselves little stories about people when we first meet them. How the impulse to create story is actually a quite healthy – a social impulse to connect, to understand. The storytelling itself, we decided, is only a problem if, with new information from the person, we refuse to upgrade our story. “Nope. I’ve got you figured out and I’m not changing my story.” This, of course is the source of everything from insidious bias systems to divisive work relationships to discord between sweethearts.

Later, in a Full Ecology talk with the larger group, a question came up about anthropomorphism – the historically domineering tendency humans have to project human feelings and thoughts into animals. In that conversation we came to this: When it comes to making sense in a given moment, all any one of us can draw on is our experience – what we know. That’s it. It’s limited, but it can always be modified.  With that in mind, we can probably forgive ourselves for ascribing character and personality to non-humans. Still – the same caution applies. Anthropomorphizing has been a mega-sin among real scientists for good reason. “The world is and has never been our chattel,” one scientist said. “Anthropomorphizing is a slippery slope when it comes to mindless and ruthless domination.” When the projection of human feelings and characteristics doesn’t change with new information, it’s a big problem.

Introversion. Again, in that larger gathering, we got to talking about how common introversion is among people who find themselves called to work in wild nature. In Full Ecology, we work to draw gently rigorous attention to the habits every one of us humans have for thinking first in terms of me. This habit is based in 2000-4000 years of culture – everything from religion to science telling us we are actually separate from everything else and should do all we can to predict, control, and either avoid or dominate. By now it’s deep in our bones.

At the same time, we never ever lose that sweet sense of connection that is our actual birthright – with nature, with birdsong, with good sleep, deep breath, unspeakable beauty. There’s profound comfort in being able to rely on things like water, air, gravity. We don’t think about it a lot, but this is part of what helps us carry on.

After the talk, Gabriella, who’s just taken a new job overseeing the removal of invasive weeds from the wild and agricultural lands of British Columbia, offered another thought on introversion. She said she’d been noticing that her own introversion might not be so much about needing alone time. Instead, and especially this week, she was noticing that her introversion came from an exhaustion with being in social situations dominated by me stories. “It’s as if there is a set of rules or agreements that everyone will operate from that belief that we’re all separate,” Gabriella said. “I think my introversion is really an aversion to social interactions where everyone is rocking their stories of me. That takes a lot of energy, partly because there’s no possibility of really connecting – of being real, of being us.”