Voyage to Deep Place
A space is a means to an end. A place is an end in itself.
When, in human history, did we create the first space? Was it the first fence being built? Was it the first road? Was it the moment the first farmer pleaded with the sky?
Humans have existed for roughly 300,000 years. Until just about 10,000 years ago, we were nomadic hunter gatherers. As such, we perceived the world much differently than we do today. Stones, rivers, mountains, plants, and animals: they were all regarded as having experiences of their own. As plainly as sunlight penetrated into the forest, so too did the light of conscious awareness.
Every aspect of the cosmos was one with which we could potentially enter into relationship. And all conceivable relationships were on the table: friendship and romantic partnership, kinship and enmity. Even those we find difficult to imagine were commonplace. Humans and other creatures were thought to metamorphose into one another under certain conditions — in death, for example, or under the spell of a shaman.
It is important to recognize that many indigenous peoples still experience the world this way. They live according to a cosmology we in the West call “animism,” derived from the Latin “anima,” meaning “life” or “soul.” For them, the world is a patchwork of places. That is, everywhere is populated with life. Everywhere is infused with soul.
“Of an inanimate being, like a table, we say ‘What is it?’ writes Robin Wall Kimmerer, member of the Potawatomi Nation. “And we answer Dopwen yewe. Table it is. But of apple, we must say, ‘Who is that being?’ And reply Mshimin yawe. Apple that being is…The language reminds us, in every sentence, of our kinship with all of the animate world.”
The vast majority of our human ancestors — about 96%— inhabited the world in this way. It was only recently, in evolutionary time, that our imaginations took us on an entirely new journey…
As the last ice age drew to close, humans began domesticating plants and animals. These included wheat, barley, peas, flax, pigs, sheep, and cattle. Domestication occurred in multiple places around the globe, including the Americas, the Middle East, and Asia. Archaeologists call this gradual but radical shift in the way we acquired food the “Neolithic Revolution.”
Agriculture entails an altogether different relationship with the land than does hunting and gathering. It requires attending to a single plot intensively over time, thereby anchoring us in place. No longer packing up and moving with the seasons, we began to accumulate surplus food and other resources. Eventually, a special class of people were in charge of overseeing the distribution of surpluses. To help in this endeavor, they invented writing and accounting.
With an increasingly efficient system of administering surplus came the opportunity for some people to give up farming. They became merchants, builders, weavers, warriors, and a multitude of other specialized professionals. As society became more complex, it stratified into classes and castes.
Before we knew it, the entire apparatus of civilization was upon us.
How we ascertain our food is our primary, embodied, habitual relationship with the living Earth. As such, it is the center around which we weave the colorful fabric of culture. For reasons still largely mysterious to science, the Neolithic Revolution ushered in a new cosmology: polytheism. Pantheons varied by geography, with gods like Zeus and Apollo in Greece, Vishnu and Shiva in India, Pachamama and Ka-Ata-Killa in Peru, Thor and Odin in Norway, and so on.
The better we got to know the gods, the more distant we grew from mountains, rivers, ravens, and jaguars. Something about civilization led to the abstraction of anima from the land. Spirit now transcended place and even time. The gods resided up there, out there, always already beyond the horizon.
With the invention of civilization came the invention of “the wild.” A decisive boundary was drawn between domesticated spaces — spaces transformed by humans for human ends — and the rest of the world.
As civilization grew, so too did the distance between us and our more-than-human kin. As time pressed on, we turned inward, toward the animism of our own ideas, scriptures, and technologies.
Today, we live in a kind of house of mirrors. Everywhere we look, we see ourselves. We see human architecture in the surrounding environment, human dreams in virtual reality. We interact almost constantly with machines of our own making. The very rhythm of our days — our relationship with time itself— is governed not by the sun or the moon, not by birdsong, but by the clock.
In our ears, the “anthrophony”: the unified cacophony of human-made sounds. I once stood on the deck of the Empire State building in New York City. Closing my eyes, I could hear the honking of traffic, the beeping of aerial cranes, the shuddering of garbage trucks and bulldozers. Underlying all of it was a low, continuous, ominous drone. I could hear only our species.
As we turn inward, we lose the language to talk about the rest of the natural world. Poet Robert McFarlane’s beautifully illustrated book, The Lost Words, is an ode to words excluded from Oxford’s 2007 children’s dictionary: “blackberry,” “otter,” and “moss,” among others. Technological words took their place, including “blog,” “chatroom,” and “database.”
How many words have been lost over the past 10,000 years?
The built environment was designed by us, engineered to keep the inside in and the outside out, to safely and efficiently transport us…somewhere. To the good life, perhaps, or to still another promised land. Wherever our destination, it isn’t here. It’s up there, out there, always already beyond the horizon.
Increasingly, it can feel like we’re living in a spaceship.
Thinking of cities in terms of spaceships, is there anything we can learn about our everyday experience? A case I find instructive as I do delightful is that of the space zucchini. And not just any space zucchini: a literary and romantic one — one that kept a diary.
The first entry is January 5th, 2012:
I sprouted, thrust into this world without anyone consulting me. I am not one of the beautiful; I am not one that by any other name instills flutters in the human heart. I am the kind that makes little boys gag at the dinner table thus being sent to bed without their dessert. I am utilitarian, hearty vegetative matter that can thrive under harsh conditions. I am zucchini — and I am in space.
Donald Pettit was the astronaut growing the zucchini and transcribing its thoughts to NASA’s blog. In my estimate, it was a more fascinating experiment than any of those Pettit was actually being paid to conduct aboard the International Space Station.
In the couple days after sprouting, the zucchini documents its growth and surroundings, paying special attention to the human crew. It senses that it, too, has a role to play aboard, but can’t quite say what it is: “As crew, I am not sure of my role but am ready to contribute what I can.”
Two weeks later, the zucchini begins to understand its special contribution. January 15th, 2012:
My gardener fusses with my leaves. I am not sure if I like that. I now have four and I do not quite understand why he behaves this way. He sticks his nose up against them. Does he take me for some sort of a handkerchief? Apparently he takes pleasure in my earthy green smell. There is nothing like the smell of living green in this forest of engineered machinery. I see the resultant smile. Maybe this is one of my roles as a crewmember on this expedition.
Nine days later, the zucchini’s suspicions are confirmed:
I am becoming quite popular. I heard one say that he would vacuum the HEPA filters for my gardener if he could have five minutes with his nose close to me.
The “biophilia hypothesis,” put forth by American biologist E.O. Wilson, states that humans have an innate “affinity for other life.” We are captivated by them, focus on them, and crave connection with them. Not all of them, of course, but those with whom we have an evolutionary relationship.
Consider for a moment our instinctual phobias: snakes, spiders, heights, loud noises, etc. Upon perceiving such stimuli, we become afraid. We have an urge to step back or flee. Such reflexes protect us from dangerous situations. Likewise, we have instinctual “philias”: brightly colored fruits, the sounds of birdsong and running water, the color green, etc. The pleasant feelings which arise in response to these stimuli urge us to move closer and stay near; these are signs of life-sustaining places.
In the last few decades, many studies have shown that exposure to nature reduces stress and anxiety, lowers blood pressure, enhances immune system function, and improves mood and self-esteem. One study found it even helps us recover faster post-surgery. Nature helps heal us, in other words, and keep us healthy.
Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, such studies are essentially saying “coming up for air is good after you’ve been underwater.” Going out into nature is about removing a negative health environment rather than introducing a positive one. Our bodies evolved to live in community with other species. They remember this, whether or not our minds do.
From the International Space Station, the Earth is a glowing orb floating outside the window. All those sights and smells and tastes that speak directly to our bodies, telling them that everything is okay, are hundreds of miles away. It’s understandable how the zucchini became so popular.
After first reading “Diary of a Space Zucchini,” I walked down to my local park. Upon entering, I took a deep breath through my nose. The air was musky and sweet and intoxicating: rocks wet with rain, damp soil, pine sap, and pond water. The zucchini’s words sprung to mind: “There is nothing like the smell of living green in this forest of engineered machinery.”
From the moment we first transformed a place into a space for our own ends, we began building a spaceship. We began preparing for a great departure. Today, as this process culminates in plans to colonize the solar system, we have never been more estranged from life on Earth. There is such distance between us and our more-than-human kin that we can hardly find the words to talk about them, let alone to them as our ancestors did.
In an important sense, we have become aliens on our own planet. And we are attacking it. Every day, more of the natural world is engulfed by our cities. Supply chains unfurl like tentacles from the core to the periphery, dynamiting and drilling at the extractive frontier. Rising like the sea, space encroaches on place and all indigenous life therein.
For too many peoples, cultures, languages, plants, and animals, displacement is death. They cannot survive in space. And so Earth’s sixth mass extinction is underway, with one million species dying out in the coming decades.
Must we continue like this until all we know is space, until all we are is alien? Or can we pull back and look beyond the mirror? Can we see, with new eyes, the world outside? Can we see, with the eyes of our ancestors, that there is actually no such thing as “the world” at all? There is only a patchwork of places. Populated with life. Infused with soul.