Wild Mind, Wild Earth
Before intention and choice, before ideas and understanding and everything we think we know about ourselves—we love this world around us. How can that be? How can we love all this when our cultural assumptions tell us in so many ways that we “humans” are fundamentally other than “nature,” and that “nature’s” only real value is how it supports our well-being? There’s no love in that. Doesn’t love require kindred natures? And what is kinship with wild earth but wild mind?
How else could we feel exhilarating awe when an orca whale leaps joyfully, yes (forget anthropomorphism, because they are so like us, so kindred) leaps joyfully out of the water, twisting spectacularly as it crashes back down: playing, or celebrating, or defiantly shouting I’m here! I’m me! to the world, to rivals, to family? And how else could we feel delight at orcas birthing (underwater midwifery!) and nurturing their young. Or feel grief that Southern Resident orcas are slowly starving to death, anger and guilt that it’s because of us: the noise of industrial ship traffic disrupting the echo-location they need to locate prey; polluted seawater; Chinook salmon, their only prey, decimated by dammed rivers and over-fishing and environmental toxins. We feel despair that because of so much stress those orcas rarely give birth anymore, that the first baby in years died soon after birth and the mother carried it on her nose for a week: above water, hoping it would breath, hoping it would somehow come back to life. Eventually, mother and child both vanished. Heartbreaking. Devastating.
We love this world, this living planet: we feel joy when life thrives, grief when it suffers and dies. This may seem obvious and uninteresting in and of itself. But it’s a mystery, isn’t it? Because given our Western assumptions, it’s inexplicable. Ancient Greek philosophy conjured a transcendental realm of pure idea that seemed more real and true than the empirical world around us—because pure idea is changeless and therefore reliable, while wild earth is constantly changing and therefore unreliable. This transcendental realm was associated with an immortal “soul,” establishing a dualism that opens a fundamental rupture between mind and earth. That dualism set the course of Western consciousness—especially as combined with Christian theology, for it became an unnoticed cultural assumption that defines the very structure of our everyday experience. And it’s quite the opposite of kinship—for it tells us that we are not wild, not earth. We are “human,” as opposed to the fundamentally other and lesser “nature.”
Togetherness is a primordial value, deeper and more ancient even than self-awareness, let alone philosophizing. It inheres in the body itself. We instinctively need togetherness; and togetherness requires kinship. Indeed, this goes so deep that it challenges our assumptions about individual identity—for without kinship and togetherness, what are we? We curl up together and sink into that primal mystery called sleep. We wake and talk together, cook and eat, make love, and sleep again. We inhabit a single tissue of language (or it inhabits us). We are positively interfused and adrift in it—and in family, community, culture, civilization. And why would it stop with our species?
In the beginnings of human culture, it did not. Amid the first glimmers of human self-consciousness, Paleolithic hunter-gatherers assumed themselves kindred to wild earth, which was itself the “sacred.” Though in that cultural context so different from our own, sacred couldn’t mean anything beyond the mysteriously generative tissue of existence itself. Indeed, in nurturing that kinship, spirituality and art celebrated the wonder of that existence-tissue, its vast and bountiful transformations.
What a deep and unrecognized wound must lay open in us—our Paleolithic kinship with the web of life torn so completely asunder, mind no longer wild and integral to wild earth. That kinship is there for children: they instinctively feel it, and they hear it in the stories we tell them, stories full of endearing animal characters. But unlike the Paleolithic, our culture strips children of that kinship, leaving us in adulthood bereft of primordial togetherness. It must be an elemental sorrow—to be separated from the wondrous expanse of planetary life, its origins and the forces that drive it. Paleolithic stories tell of that planetary togetherness, speak of creatures like orcas as brothers and sisters, as ancestors. But the foundational stories of our Greek/Christian West describe a self-enclosed human realm separate from everything else. It’s a wound so complete we can’t see it anymore, for it defines the very nature of what we assume ourselves to be: centers of spirit-identity fundamentally separate from the world around us.
There is an ethics in that wound, for it establishes our human project as the sole center of value. That means “nature” is simply there for us—a resource base for us to exploit however we wish, because it is not human (no reason or soul or language or . . . ) and therefore has little intrinsic value. And so, the wound is not only decimating us psychically, however little we are aware of it, but it is also decimating earth’s ecosystem, ravaging its inhabitants in unimaginable numbers, individual by individual by individual.
But if those assumptions were true about us, how could we love this world? How could we feel so kindred, so emotionally entangled? Entangled through and through—feeling (yes, feeling!) the grandeur of mountain peaks towering over deserts or the elegant beauty of a Siberian iris blooming in the garden; savoring chocolate and clementine and espresso; relishing the sun’s warmth on our faces, chill clarity of the moon in our eyes. We must be so much more than what we think we are. However deeply we have forgotten it, we must still be wild in our original Paleolithic nature—wild and kindred to wild earth.
That kinship is itself a truly primordial ethics, an ethics before question and argument. For if the ten thousand things of this earth are kindred, their self-realization must have no less value than our own, and harming them must be no less problematic than harming our fellow humans. At bottom, rescuing this planet from its sixth great extinction event is a spiritual/philosophical problem, for it is the assumptions defining us and our relation to the earth that drive the destruction: the wound that insists we are radically different and qualitatively more valuable than the rest of existence. It’s complicated, and we’ll get to that. But it’s very possible that recognizing and embracing and cultivating our kinship with wild earth is the only thing that might save this planet from today’s great extinction, the Great Vanishing now seething through its oceans and continents.
We love this world, and there is an unnoticed philosophical revolution inherent in that love. As we will see, that revolution has been slowly unfolding over the last few centuries in the West, making possible our kindred love for wild earth’s ten thousand things. It is a return to Paleolithic understanding, and that return has a precedent in early China. There, nearly four thousand years ago, a wound very similar to our own defined human consciousness for over a millennia. But in a vast cultural transformation, it was replaced by the Paleolithic paradigm that had survived beneath the surface of political power structures, a paradigm that revealed our entanglement with existence to be everywhere, all through everything we are. In this alternative paradigm, wild mind kindred to wild earth became the unthought assumption shaping experience—experience, and ethics too.
Perhaps it’s too late. Perhaps it’s true nothing can save the planet at this point, perhaps the Great Vanishing is already too far along. But this precedent of fundamental cultural transformation in early China makes a similar transformation seem possible here. As our love for this world reveals, this transformation is already quite advanced. And because ancient Chinese society was so like ours in its fundamental structures (written texts, intense education, bureaucratic government, cities, diversified market-economy, etc.), ancient China’s version of the Paleolithic paradigm could lead the way forward. Sartre said “existence precedes essence,” and he was right. There is no human essence that determines how we can act. Instead, we define that essence always anew in the free choices we make in our day to day existence.
We love this world, this living planet—and we also love the stars and galaxies. It’s exhilarating to see telescopic images of stars scattered sparkling through space or clustered into swirling galaxies, to learn of their mind-bending lives: the way gravity condenses cosmic dust into stars and ignites them, then finally crushes them into themselves so violently that they explode and seed space with the rich dust that will become a new generation of stars and planets like ours. Our kinship seems to know no bounds! And in rediscovering that kinship, how can we help but discover vast and beautiful dimensions of ourselves that had been lost: human consciousness woven profoundly through the planetary ecosystem, woven indeed through the entire Cosmos?
Yes, we are much more than what we think we are, and that is liberation of astounding proportions. Even simple perception: a gaze into star-strewn night skies, for instance, or streamwater braiding liquid light between stones. In sight, we find that utter belonging quite literally and scientifically true. The Cosmos evolved countless suns and planets; and here on our planet earth, it evolved life forms with image-forming eyes like ours. So what else is that gaze but the very Cosmos looking out at itself? What is thinking but the Cosmos contemplating itself? And our inexplicable love for this world, our delight and grief—what is that but the Cosmos loving itself, delighting in itself, grieving for itself? We are wild through and through: wild mind, wild earth, wild Cosmos. This is how Paleolithic and ancient Chinese people understood it. And it seems clear enough, even self-evident, once we step outside our cultural assumptions.
This is our most magisterial identity, an identity that encompasses all of existence: the ten thousand things of earth and Cosmos looking out through our eyes. In their expansive and ravishing dimensions we find our kinship with those things, our love and emotional entanglement. And we also find an ethics, for what happens to earth quite literally happens to us. Who knew ethics could be so beautiful, this valuing of the ten thousand things each in its own exquisite and individual clarity? Here it is, that ethics distilled into a simple-seeming little poem of crystalline seeing that was written by Tu Mu in ninth-century China:
Robes of snow, crests of snow, and beaks of azure jade,
they fish in shadowy streams. Then startling away into
flight, they leave emerald mountains for lit distances.
Pear blossoms, a tree-full, tumble in the evening wind.