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By Terry Tempest Williams
Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in late winter is white. The bare cottonwoods are gray. And the lodgepole pines and Douglas firs appear black, not green. Even the birds that stay in this extended season of subfreezing temperatures appear as commas and exclamation marks on vast white pages of snow. A magpie, a raven, a chickadee create a winged text after the storms have settled. And then, the signature of tracks are made, imprints left in pristine fields by coyote, by fox, by moose, and by deer.
An ermine swims through the drifts. In a blink, she is gone. A snowshoe hare hides in the hollow created at the base of a blue spruce—blue where dense, sharp-needled boughs hold off the snow. Occasionally, the sky breaks free from the density of gray as clouds separate and create a blue hole. The nobility of the Teton Range is revealed once again. On these days, you leave the insularity of your home, you put on your skis and glide through the woods into the vast clearing and feel the immense joy of moving through a landscape of crystals on a snow-crunching cold afternoon.
Brooke and I experience just such a day with our friends Dana and Jack Turner.
We’ve known each other for decades. Jack is an experienced mountain guide for Exum who has climbed the Grand Teton more than 400 times, led expeditions throughout Asia from Nepal to Tibet to China, and led the first trek to K2 from the south, in Pakistan, and the first trek from the north side, from China. He is a brilliant and provocative writer who also paints. His Abstract Wild, published in 1996, has become a classic in environmental literature.
Dana, elegant in her calm manner, manages wildlife photographer Tom Mangelson’s gallery, “Images of Nature,” in town. Both are serious practitioners of Zen Buddhism and belong to “The Ring of Bone” sanga in the Sierras.
Jack has a daily practice of “one-hour meditations” in the wild. A focused point in the day when he is outside—walking, skiing, or sitting—alive, awake, and aware.
“People make such a big deal of going outside that the event of recreation and adventure overtakes the experience of communion,” says this big bear of a man with a carefully shaven white beard, wonderfully weathered face, and engaging blue eyes. “We’re so busy being in motion, we forget to really see or feel the life around us.”
The hour we spend together on skis near their cabin within Grand Teton National Park reflects this kind of consciousness, and we celebrate with a tea ceremony when we reach the fork at Lake Creek.
“We need to develop individual practices that re-create a web of interconnection with the natural world that we have lost,” he says. “They must immerse the self so deeply in the wild that boundaries of self and Other dissolve.”
He goes on to say, “What counts as wildness and wilderness is determined not by the absence of people, but by the relationship between people and place. A place is wild when its order is created according to its own principles of organization—when it is self-willed land.”
Within my field notebook, I list the following species we encounter either in person or through tracks, feathers, twigs, or trunks: moose, elk, deer, coyote, gray fox, martin, snowshoe hare, ruffed grouse, black-billed magpie, black-capped chickadee, red-shafted flicker, trumpeter swan, bald eagle, aspen, cottonwood, blue spruce, lodgepole pine, willows, serviceberry, chokecherry, sage.
We speak about how the grizzlies this year in the park did not hibernate until the first week in January, which is very unusual. And Jack notes that the strain on whitebark pine due to local warming and climate change is affecting the grizzlies, which depend on the nuts for late fall food. With hotter summers and warmer winters, the pinebark beetle has a double life cycle that is creating a massive die-off of the white bark pines. Whole forests in the high country of the Northern Rockies within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are now being referred to as ghost forests. All you see are the silver-sheened trunks of the trees lifeless on the ridgelines that appear as the raised hackles of wolves. As the whitebark pines go, so go the grizzly bears.
And so our one-hour meditation becomes a meditation on relationships within the natural world.
No one understood this better than Gregory Bateson. “We live in a world that is only made of relationships,” he wrote.
In his masterpiece, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, written in 1972, Bateson focused on “the pattern that connects.” These four words have become his lasting legacy. “It is impossible, in principle, to explain any pattern by invoking a single quantity. . . . The division of things into parts is a convenience.”
I have been reading and rereading this book on and off for thirty years. It wasn’t until I assigned it as a single text for a graduate seminar in the Environmental Humanities Program at the University of Utah that I actually read it cover to cover.
It is not a linear book, nor does it offer easy answers. It asks us to be intellectually nimble. “Our ability to remain stable is our ability to remain flexible,” Bateson writes. Steps to an Ecology of Mind requires us to keep rebalancing ourselves.
Bateson’s question—“What is the pattern that connects?”—was never meant to be answered because the pattern is constantly changing. This is one of the reasons why his ideas are so challenging and why a writer like Jack Turner walks in Bateson’s footsteps.
“The pathology of wrong thinking doesn’t take into consideration relationships,” Bateson warns.
This pathology has never been more apparent than in American politics. Consider Rick Santorum’s recent comments to Bob Schieffer on Face The Nation, when he said Barack Obama’s “world view” is different than that of most Americans. The day before, Santorum had said that the President believes in “some phony ideal, some phony theology . . . not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.”
When Schieffer asked him to clarify his statements, Santorum said that he was referencing not the President’s faith but environmentalism.
“Well, I was talking about the radical environmentalists,” he said. “That’s what I was talking about: Energy, this idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. . . . I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do.”
“The Earth is not the objective,” Santorum said. “Man is the objective. I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.”
Turner and Bateson would say radical environmentalists have it right side up.
But more importantly, I believe they would argue that a change of consciousness is what is required, which has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with spirituality. In Bateson’s ecology of mind, “epistemology is part of biology.”
What I continue to miss in our political discourse is the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all things. Santorum, Romney, and Gingrich speak of not only American exceptionalism but the specialness of man, himself—and I mean “man,” not woman or child, plant or animal, or ecosystem. One inequality creates another because the system is never viewed as a whole. We need “a qualitative shift of imagination,” Bateson says. We need a collective mind capable of looking outward with humility and empathy as we see ourselves belonging to part of something much larger than ourselves. Call it Earth or call it God, what would have to happen for Mr. Santorum to see this creative impulse as the same thing?
Bateson says in his essay, “Form, Substance, and Difference”:
“If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks . . . against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables. If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic byproducts of your own hate, or, simply, of over-population and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite.”
And then, he concludes: “If I am right, the whole of our thinking about what we are and what other people are has got to be restructured. . . . The most important task today is, perhaps, to learn to think in the new way.”
Gregory Bateson hoped to leave us a big framework, “the mass tangle of mass relationships.” It is as simple and complicated as four friends spending one hour in the deep quiet of an afternoon ski, with the elegant signatures of animal tracks alongside us.
Terry Tempest Williams’s forthcoming book, “When Women Were Birds,” received a starred review in Publisher's Weekly and will be published April 17, 2012, by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.