Sunday, January 07, 2018

Paul Shepard: The Ecology of Maturity

Paul Shepard. photo courtesy of Florence Shepard.
Paul Shepard, a visionary pioneer of ecology, died in 1996.  We exchanged letters in the last year or so of his life.  Casey Walker, editor of the Wild Duck Review, put together a special issue on Shepard in 1997.   Shepard's widow, Florence Rose Krall Shepard, suggested I might contribute an article.  (In addition to editing Paul's last manscripts, she is the author of two books, Ecotone and more recently Sometimes Creek: A Wyoming Memoir.)

On a visit to Arcata, Casey and Jack Turner, author of the excellent book The Abstract Wild, had coffee with me at Los Bagels.  Casey then invited me to write the article I described.  Titled "The Ecology of Maturity" it appeared in the Wild Duck Review special issue along with contributions by Florence Shepard, Stephen Kellert, C.L. Rawlins, Barbara Ras, Barbara Dean, Dolores LaChapelle, Steve Chase and Joseph Meeker, and Gary Snyder. 

 Several of these articles, plus biographical information appear on the Paul Shepard site that Casey set up.  With Florence Shepard, I set up an earlier site that no longer exists, although I will probably build a new one.  I'm also beginning a series of Shepard quotes at my Dreaming Up Daily blog.

Shepard's ideas only become more relevant as time goes on.  There were online and magazine articles in late 2017 about a new book that dared to suggest that the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture in human history might not have been the unalloyed triumph it is assumed to have been--that for example, hunter-gatherers were healthier.  Shepard wrote this, and made a sophisticated case for it, at least 30 years before.  

Similarly, several books in the past decade or so have asserted the crucial role of nature in child development.  Shepard showed how profoundly true this is, also 30 years ago.  Yet he is seldom credited.  Shepard combined a breathtaking synthesis backing strong and profound analysis.  He essentially created the field of human ecology, and his work defines it.  Apparently few have been able to match both his breadth and depth, so he remains unique.  All the more reason to keep his works alive. 

In the years immediately following his death, Florence edited his final manuscripts for publication by Island Press. Around that time the University of Georgia Press also published new editions of several of his landmark books which had fallen out of print.

What follows is my original (and longer) version of "The Ecology of Maturity."

The Ecology of Maturity

Most of my teachers I never met, nor am I sure, given my thesis, that they would assent heartily to my apprenticeship.” 
Paul Shepard, Preface to Nature and Madness.

Paul Shepard in the 1970s

 I missed the chance to be a student of Paul Shepard by less than a year. He left Knox College in the spring of 1964 after teaching there for a decade; I entered as a fresh-faced freshman the following fall. I’ve wondered what difference this lost opportunity made in my life, and thinking back on that year, it’s likely that the impact of his absence was immediate.

 Orientation week included a series of presentations and discussions on the theme of “Two Cultures” as defined by C.P. Snow and engaged further by literary critic F.R. Levis. One culture was science, the other humanities. We had been sent books on the subject and were expected to have read them before arriving.

 The idea of such a colloquium was a wonderful introduction to the liberal arts ideal--Knox was and is a small liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois. But separating science and humanities into two camps, with faculty members defending their side, had unfortunate consequences. The humanities side was championed by (among others) a fiery literature professor (I suspect he was the “friend” that Paul Shepard debates in his introduction to his first book Man in the Landscape, who says that nature is out of date) railing against technocracy and reductionism, and defending beauty, ambiguity and humane values.

Science was represented by colorless men in short-sleeved shirts who were technically precise but seemed mildly patronizing (Snow’s most incendiary sentence said that scientists “have the future in their bones”) as well as narrow, feckless and clueless regarding the larger questions and implications.

That was my impression anyway, so there was no question which culture won. In any case I hadn’t intended to major in a science; arriving on a writing scholarship I became a literature and composition major, with several courses in philosophy and “political science.” But I had some residual romanticism attached to science and an abiding interest in many aspects including method, subject matter, and the public and profound issues raised. Most of all I was hungry to know what the sciences could contribute to a fuller understanding of the world.

But as a result of these presentations, I didn’t think I’d find any answers, or even any sympathy, in science courses or faculty. Of course, as Man in the Landscape (which had also been the title of a course Shepard taught at Knox) abundantly demonstrated when it was published three years later, Paul Shepard united both cultures in his adventurous vision.

 That book specifically embraced art, religion, philosophy, history and literature. Later his work would go deeply into areas of anthropology, comparative religion, psychology, education, and a dozen different sciences; throughout his work he refers to paintings and quotes poets, playwrights and novelists, all in a lifelong inquiry into Big Questions and a persistent search for meaning. He was a living liberal arts ideal.

So at Knox I learned how to read a poem, but not how to read the trees; I could identify a sestina, but not a Ponderosa pine. While my intellectual life blossomed, I felt an emptiness that I learned to identify as inherent in our existential dilemma. Shepard would see at least part of this as a measure of our unnecessary alienation from nature and the wild, especially in childhood. I felt it, and could almost identify it at times--as when my senses would sharpen and my muscles quicken in the flickering dark of the woods, to an extent that embarrassed me with friends because this was so “out of character.”

 Somehow I did not connect the feelings in poetry or in Thoreau and Emerson, with what my body felt as I loped up a wooded hillside, nimble, alert and silent. Yet I wonder how much of my resistance Shepard could have overcome then.

I was told by older students that he was a charismatic teacher, almost a saintly figure, and that would have helped. I probably would have been impressed and changed by how he physically related to the wild, which I hadn’t observed in anyone else.  Paul Faulstich remembers (in his contribution to The Company of Others: Essays in Celebration of Paul Shepard) how Shepard walked “across the landscape as if it is something not entirely separate from himself” and taught him “how to kill and eat a rattlesnake as though it were a sacred being...”

I would have been very sympathetic to Shepard’s opposition to some of the prevailing ideas of the times. In the 1960s, science was predominately mechanistic, reductionist and often in unholy alliance with the military-industrial complex. Especially in America, the popular idea of evolution was more social Darwinism than Darwin: survival of the fittest, which meant progress, the shedding of useless characteristics in the process of continuous improvement. The social evolution resulting in science and technology meant we fixed nature to work for us, and if we broke something along the way, well, we could fix that, too, and probably make money doing it.

 As for evolution in nature itself, the implication was similar to that expressed recently by a Humboldt State University athletic coach during a brief debate on changing the school’s mascot, who referred to the marbled murrelet as “a loser species.” The message of natural selection was: adapt or die out. The most vivid example I learned in my junior year course in Evolution was of a species of white moth that suddenly found itself easy prey when lighting on trees blackened by industrial soot in the north of England. The white moths disappeared, while a black moth mutation prospered.  (The science of this has since been questioned but the metaphor was not lost on me, especially when I failed the course.)

Shepard’s view of evolution is very different, emphasizing what it includes rather than excludes. And I certainly would have agreed that “environmental quality is inseparable not only from the protection of wildlife but also from war, poverty and social justice...” (as he wrote in his preface to the Environ/Mental anthology.)

But his championing of the hunter-gatherer as essential to human life as it did evolve might not have appealed to me then. Thanks to the spectre of nuclear war, Vietnam, the draft, and the kind of people who promoted them, I wasn’t sympathetic to man the hunter. Hunting was warfare on animals, the beginning of the technology that had evolved into the warfare state, the carnivorous competition of capitalism, leading to the grinning mechanical intolerance of social Darwinism itself.

 In fact, Evolution was the only course I flunked in college, and despite my first place in departmental comprehensives, I wasn’t graduated because I’d needed that course for a distribution requirement. I was passing until the final, when I couldn’t identify sketched bones of extinct animals, and wouldn’t try. The night before, I’d observed fellow students in the student union desperately cramming information they would gratefully forget two minutes after the exam. They were doing it essentially without a thought, because that was the course of evolution. For me it was a sham I couldn’t force myself through one last time, not with the winds of Vietnam and the draft howling just on the other side of graduation’s door, no matter what I did.

 So the following spring I spent my class’s graduation day watching Bobby Kennedy’s funeral on the student union TV. Although I eventually fought my way out of the draft, I had essentially been selected out of academia and the mainstream, and generally felt like “a white moth/pressed against/a blackened tree,” lines I had already published in the college magazine, in a poem called “Evolution.”
This 1969 collection with Shepard's essay
"Ecology and Man: A Viewpoint"
became a foundation text for ecology

 Yet sometime between the Two Cultures colloquium and the Evolution final, something happened at Knox that would turn out to be another key opening to Shepard’s books, among other things. It was something a visiting speaker said--I don’t remember who he was or his main topic, but as a kind of aside or example, he mentioned that some aboriginal peoples give thanks to the spirit of the animal they have just killed. I was so moved by this that I left the room.

 The idea of this ceremony was a crucial link. I had a feel for ritual from my Catholic schooling, yet I’d begun questioning dogma (and getting into enormous trouble for it) in high school, and had finally renounced membership one winter Sunday of my college freshman year, because of the contrast between the impatient congregation that kept their coats on during Mass, and the coats piled gently on each other on the floor outside the dining room where my fellow students congregated.

 Thanks in part to campus readings by poets like Gary Synder (who read for several hours, three days running), Robert Bly and Denise Levertov, I saw new possibilities for ritual and relationships to the natural world. But here in the imagined figure of that hunter I saw a true sacrament, a sense of the sacred I instinctively felt was not only right, but the key to everything.

1. In the Context of Otherness 

 That's a long-winded short version of my journey to Paul Shepard’s books, and what I value in them. I admired Man in the Landscape so passionately that I talked the editor of Harper’s Bookletter into letting me write a review of it in 1974, even though by then it was out of print. I got the Shepard and McKinley anthologies in the ‘70s, but lost track of Paul Shepard’s work until I came across Nature and Madness in a Seattle used bookstore in the late 80s. That bundle of thunder sent me to the library to catch up on The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game and Thinking Animals, which together prompted me to write another review of Paul Shepard’s once again out-of-print books.

 In some respects, conventional wisdom caught up with Shepard. Ecology and environment are common concepts, even inspiring contending bureaucracies. There is some sense that evolution is not the same as progress, that diversity might be part of the point after all. Some would even agree that the culture is crazy, though not in the same profound sense or for the same reasons Shepard posits.

 But in even more striking ways, Shepard remains stubbornly beyond the fashions of the acceptable dissents. While others yearned for a return to the land, he insisted that farming had itself sown the seeds of doom. When others cried, it all started going wrong with the automobile, he said, no, actually, it was the horse.

 As I understand it, Shepard’s vision does not differ from the conventional in a few picturesque, cantankerous details. He challenges basic assumptions about how we see ourselves and the world.

For centuries the reigning metaphors for how things worked were mechanical. The Cartesian universe was like a giant clock, the body a machine. The model was refined: for instance in the 1930s, the brain was a kind of telephone switchboard (promulgated in my grade school days by those Bell Telephone science film strips.) Lately the metaphors for mind and body have been computerized. We process, we interface, our leisure or illness constitutes down-time; we’re hardwired, we’re software, we download and uplink,we’re overloaded.

 Instead Shepard revives and elaborates a more ancient but by now revolutionary model: we’re animals. We bleed, taste, touch and sleep. We’re not silicon and plastic inventions; our fleshy hands come from our forebears in the trees, our eyes from the sea, and our minds from the forage and the hunt. We learn who we are and who we aren’t by observing and living in conscious intimacy with animals and their given world, which is also ours.

Another popular assumption supposedly gleaned from science is the history of the human, as pictured in school texts and most minds. It begins with the “prehistoric” cave-man: bent over, dull-eyed, holding a crude club, his stupid jaw darkly unshaven. Then we progress meticulously through the brief ages--the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans,etc.-- until we come to the upright figure of modern man, striding forward with confident grin, fresh from a shave and a shoe shine.

 Shepard’s very different picture is shocking for the implication of its accurate time-scale. There in the last fraction of the continuum--a mere ten thousand years-- is all of what we call history. The first few million years is “prehistoric man,” climaxing with the long and happy habitation of the hunter-gatherers, when the human body and mind were formed, when our evolution essentially stopped, because there's not been enough time since for it to have adapted significantly.  That's when human nature was formed.

 Unfortunately we’ve constructed societies since then largely inimical to our natures, not to mention nature as a whole. These two basic insights, about animals and human time, are involved in a different message of evolution.  The message is that in crucial ways we are the animals and they are us, and that what we are as humans is mostly what we were for the longest time.

 But evolution doesn’t principally mean that the inefficient gets left behind; it also means that nothing is lost. And sometimes--like our color vision--what was apparently lost can be regained.

 In The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, Shepard describes the hunter-gatherer life: living in small groups, with neither sex subservient, and largely without war or greed; intelligently attendant to the natural world and totally involved in it; makers of intricate tools, with abundant leisure and forms of what we call art that combine functionality, religious inquiry and expression, science, and fun.

Interacting with animals, plants and habitat, hunting and gathering built and formed human intelligence, and the soul of the species. He goes on in that book and those that followed to elaborate on this picture and to explore its enormous implications.

 Poets and ancestral or existing primal cultures bring us similar perspectives, but what is especially important is that Shepard comes to them by way of what we understand as science. Yet he comes to the same profound place, the mystery at the heart of the human encounter with the world as symbolized by the hunter praying over prey.“Broadly understood, the hunt refers to the larger quest for the way, the pursuit of meaning and contact with a sentient part of the environment, and the intuition that nature is a language.”

 Shepard is unique in the organization of his argument and the blend of knowledge linking science with the spiritual in an ecology of the mind and millennia. In this afflicted existential, postmodern culture roiling around in what George W.S. Trow calls “the context of no context,” he presents our crucial alternative, “the context of otherness.”

He does as a matter of course what "the Two Cultures" won’t allow, but which permits Shepard the scientist to know the past in his bones, and therefore the present, and therefore the future: he sweeps his scholarly eye, and tunes his omnivorous ear, to evidence from the dissecting table, the archaeological dig, the naturalist’s perch, the anthropologist’s tape recorder, the shaman’s chants, the poet’s dreams.

the current Georgia Press edition
“The dream and song are ecological factors,” he writes in The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game. “ As in the development of myth, their basic images have been shaped by the same evolutionary forces that shape the physical traits of species.”

 But he does not just make the point: Shepard richly populates it, and to experience this requires reading his books. At the same time, he opposes misplaced mysticism and challenges the the sentimental errors of animal rights advocates, the arrested adolescence of ideologues, the ethical myopia of self-righteous vegetarians (...the zucchini-killers and drinkers of the dark blood of innocent soybeans”); any smugness that might tempt wilderness protectors, and even the kindness of pet lovers, all of which I’m sure frustrates some who would like to tabulate another easily absorbed New Age prophet.

 Even for environmentalists he must have sometimes been the gadfly in the ointment. But in the end--and all along the way--he tightly braids the physical with what it implies, with what it radiates, and what rationalist science denies: the spiritual that comes from the physical directly, the essential living mysteries, the sacred embedded in the encounters, the corresponding wilds.

 In doing so he always examines the individual as well as the species and culture, as he links the intensely specific physical world with its religious and ethical implications. In a late essay (“On Animal Friends”) he calls for an “ecology of maturity”, to be realized in “ a sense of gratitude more than mastery,” and “participation in a rich community of organisms, a true biophilia or polytheism.”

 Here in the offhand linking of those last two terms, “biophilia or polytheism”, is the boldness of the vision he contributes. In “A Posthistoric Primitivism,” another of his essential late essays collected in Traces of An Omnivore, he writes: “As born antihistorians, our secret desire is to explicate the inexplicable, to recover what is said to be denied.” Yet to be an antihistorian is perhaps not to be anti-evolutionary.

2.Writer on the Landscape 
Doug Wilson with Paul Shepard

  finally exchanged letters with Paul Shepard, brokered by Douglas Wilson, his colleague and my teacher at Knox, but Shepard was already in the last year of his life. So I never met him, and my contact with him has all been in words on pages.

But I admired those words and pages; I admire his writing as writing, where we get at substance only through style.

 It was clear to me from the first pages of Man in the Landscape that he was, among other things, a natural born writer, who also worked at the writing craft, to produce these elegant, clear sentences. It seems he knew this and was suspicious of it.

 In his introduction to The Others (1996), Shepard writes about writing about nature.  He sees why poets are attracted to animals: “The meaning of animals is implicit in what they do...Like amusing, wise, terrible, curved mirrors, animals prefigure human society...the bird is spirit and the snake is the earth of our most elemental self, our mundane world, and our imagination.” Then he stops: “But I am leery of my own enthusiasm for writing. Is our relationship to animals essentially a branch of nature writing?”

 After trashing Thoreau as a boring coiner of aphorisms, “Nature writing nourishes the view of nature as esthetic abstraction--something like the sphinx on the library steps, the denizens of a bestiary whose charming irrelevance teases us out of the burdens of urban life and its stewpot of political and social drama where intellectuals have their true home.” “But that is an aside,” he says, and numbers among the ways humans emerged in relation to the animals, along with observing, eating and being eaten by them, “communicating their significance by dancing, sculpting, performing, imaging, narrating and thinking them.”

 He praises Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring as not only a warning against pesticides “but against a deafened self, against emptiness.” But then he backs off again--”If art--writing--is to be a mere substitute, seeking to replace animals with an alternative reality, then let us seek instead an antiwriting against the seductive illusions of the ‘beauty’ of nature.”

 In addition to his misgivings about nature writing, Shepard, among others, suggest that the invention of writing itself was yet another mechanism that distances humans from their ancient deep involvement with nature and each other. Still, Shepard did not restrict his tellings to gatherings around winter fires, or even classrooms. Nor did he work primarily in the laboratory or the field to produce data, medicines or tools; in addition to informal observation and experience, his essential roles were reader and writer. Despite the technical terms that sometimes seem efficient, and sometimes like secret passwords, he wrote many a dancing sentence--by the evidence, he couldn’t help himself.

Shepard’s enthusiasm for writing is evident in his overflows of imagery, as well as alliterations, assonance, slant rhymes and rhythms, and rhetoric. See how he does not stop at one adjective or two, but bashes together a startling, multidimensional image, of the poetic function of animals as “amusing, wise, terrible, curved mirrors...” 

He plays with words and meaning, sometimes a slant-punster ( Of paintings of the inner eye he says “To me these retinas look like impressionist landscapes. In an evolutionary sense, the habitat has impressed its form upon the neural tissue...”) sometimes an environmentalist Shakespeare: “If we were all alike as eggs,” he begins, then counters “...but we hatch into a world where everything we do can help make or unmake the possibilities for our future growth.”

 Then a dig at “Intellectual or eggheads” who “like to think that we live in a world of ideas we invent...” Then the metaphor changes: “But in some part of our skulls there is a wilderness. We call it the unconscious because we cannot cultivate it the way you would a field of grain or a field of thought.” Several more metaphors tumble over one another, repeat and refer back, before the paragraph ends. To my ear it suggests an Elizabethan ecology of words and meaning.

 He creates ambiguities of larger resonance, as in the various applications of hunting as “the sacred game”: deadly serious play with inherent rules that mimic those that define all existence, and the contending yet partnered players who are each other’s game animal, game to play because the game is major to their meaning. And more.

 Sometimes his own playing is most unexpectedly musical: “Although they joined the exclusive club of the open-country carnivores and prey, they did not lose their floral affiliations.” Sometimes the music makes startling image, as “this cleavage between the pallid and prismatic..”, and sometimes the music makes meaning: the crispness of “The larger carnivores display a prudence about killing,” followed by the satirical lope of “in contrast to our fantasy of the rampaging beast...”

 He wrote about the human experience of nature as encoded and celebrated in language. Animals animate words, and in The Sacred Claw, Shepard shepherds some that derive from human encounters with bears, such as “berserk”, “brightness” and maybe even “dance.”

 Rhythmic music and dance are essential to Paleolithic cultures and their sacramental relationship with nature, Shepard writes, and Gary Snyder intimates that animals love our music. Writing has its own music and incorporates its own dance. The music may come from a less conscious level, but when it’s good music, it adds to meaning on all levels. “Words in themselves do not convey meaning...the sound of them does,” said Robert Frost.

 I tend to view the death of music in writing, or the failure to perceive and value it, in the same spirit as Gabriel Garcia Marquez regards the death of the novel. “Some say the novel is dead,” he says,” but it is not the novel. It is they who are dead.” But the music lives on, for those who can hear it.

Perhaps Paul Shepard finally justifies his writing as the journey all hunters and gatherers make. “The human mind came into existence tracking, which for us creates a land of named places and fosters narration, the tale of adventure.”