Archive for June, 2007

One among many

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

This year is the fortieth anniversary of my trip to the Amazon rainforest as a participant in an expedition organised by the U.S. Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, California.  I have been asked, as one of the few survivors of that era, to write about those times and say how my academic view of Nature was affected by the Amazonian environment at a time when its wildness was coming under increased pressures of economic development.
Getting to the heart of the jungle
The gathering point was Duke University, where our leader, Knut Schmidt-Neilsen was a professor of biology. From Duke in North Carolina, we made our way by air via New York to Belém, one of Brazil’s busiest ports, about 60 miles upriver from the Atlantic ocean. The river here is called the Pará, part of the greater Amazon river system.  Belém is built on a number of small islands intersected by channels and other rivers.  Founded in 1616, it was the first European colony on the Amazon.  Belem sits at one of the two mouths of the river; the other, and larger one, is 200 miles farther north, exactly on the equator.  Between the two mouths is the huge island of Marajo.  The magnitude of the Amazon is unimaginable; it delivers more fresh water into the ocean than all the other rivers of the world combined.  Its flow extends a hundred miles into the Atlantic before becoming mixed with the salt water of the ocean.  Inland, the river does not have just a single channel but takes many courses depending upon the season of the year when it drains the flood waters from the eastern slopes of the Andes mountains. 
We took a light aircraft from Belém about 800 miles inland, following the Amazon westwards to Manaus to join the research vessel Alpha Helix. We cruised just above cloud level which provided a birds-eye view of the vastness of the river embedded in a flat tree-clothed landscape, intersected by numerous river channels, for the most part with no sign of human habitation.  As we came closer to Manaus we could clearly see ‘the meeting of the waters’.  This is a visual expression of the river a few miles upstream from Manaus.  From the air you can clearly see the warmer and darker water of the Negro river running side by side with the yellow silty Solimões without mixing.
From 1890 to 1920, Manaus was a rubber boomtown.  Brazil was the ecological home of the rubber tree and the country had a monopoly of rubber latex.  For a relatively short time the plantation owners became extravagantly wealthy and the town prospered. Immigrants from north-eastern Brazil, fleeing drought and poverty, flooded Manaus, seeking riches in the rubber trade.
In contrast to the hand to mouth existence of its workers, the upper class created the Teatro Amazonas, an opera house opened in 1896.  It is still a notable landmark of 19th century European city culture of the time.  By 1884, construction was ready to begin under the Italian architect Celestial Sacardim, who planned for the theatre in the Renaissance style to be state of the art and to include electric lighting.  Work proceeded slowly and intermittently over fifteen years. Roofing tiles came from Alsace, while from Paris, came furniture and furnishings in the style of Louis XV. From Italy came Carrarra marble for the stairs, statues, and columns. Steel walls were ordered from England. The theatre has 198 chandeliers, including 32 of top quality Venetian Murano glass, all elaborations of human ingenuity fast tracked from European times when the first flint was spit to make a cutting tool.  The stage curtain, with its painting the “Meeting of the Waters” created in Paris by Crispim do Amaral, depicts the junction of the Rio Negro and the Solimões.  The first performance occurred on 7 January 1897 with the Italian opera, La Gioconda, by Amilcare Ponchielli being performed in an oasis of the European Renaissance surrounded by unexplored rainforest known as the ‘green hell’.  This was a hinge of human history; a symbol of the conquest of Nature through the march of European civilisation.
By 1920, synthetic rubber and the growth of British plantations, resulting from the smuggling of the Brazilian rubber tree to Malaya, caused a drastic plunge in the price of rubber, and Manaus declined into poverty.
Today Manaus is a free trade zone and the financial centre of North Brazil. When we arrived, this zone had recently been inaugurated by a Brazilian nation determined to convert its wastelands into a productive asset.  They had started with the river itself and it was commonplace to see handfuls of gold dredged from the bed of the Amazon changing hands in the hotel foyer.  Already, cattle ranching had begun and soil erosion was adding to the silt burden of the Solimões.  In the 1960s the main links were by river and air.  Talk about superhighways has now come to pass.  The north-south Trans Amazonian highway passes through Manaus and there is a connection from this arterial road to Belem.
At Manaus, we joined the research vessel Alpha Helix and headed upstream for the expedition’s destination, a small island at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Rio Branco. Here there is a meeting of the waters in miniature.  The two rivers have contrasting chemistries, offering two fresh water ecosystems in which to study the various ways aquatic organisms have adapted to these differences.  ‘Evolution in freshwater’ was the theme of our expedition.
The Alpha Helix
The Alpha Helix was a modern, ocean-going, research vessel with laboratories, which provided both standard and specialized equipment. The ship was constructed and equipped so that was it was possible to place a biological research laboratory in any part of the world. Through the aid of this vessel physiologists and biochemists could carry on research programmes, with both sophisticated laboratories and other logistic support, in geographical areas where many investigations would otherwise be impossible.
The idea for this ship and its design originated with Dr. P. F. Scholander of the Scripps Institution, and at his suggestion it was designated as a National Facility, for use of scientists from the United States and elsewhere. It was built with financial support from the National Science Foundation and was managed by Scripps.  Our team was drawn from the USA, Canada, France, Denmark and Brazil.
The boat was a converted Pacific tuna trawler about 130 feet long. Its hull had been strengthened for use in Arctic ice, and was air conditioned for use in the tropics.  It had modern navigation and communication equipment, and in addition to the well-equipped laboratories, it carried collecting gear, and prefabricated shore laboratories, which could be set up and used to increase the research capacity of the ship. It also carried a number of small workboats powered by outboard motors and a 24-foot cabin cruiser for more extended side trips. The design provided a large, fully equipped laboratory on the main deck.  For our purposes a small flying boat was also available to deliver mail, although during my stay it was seldom airworthy.
In this relative comfort, isolation, and exotic environment, ten scientists at a time could obtain a productive period of experimental work on organisms not easily available otherwise, as well as the stimulating company of their colleagues, all specialists in their own areas. Imagine ten scientists sitting around the breakfast table discussing yesterday’s observations and last night’s experiments. Before starting the day’s work they step out on the rear fantail of the Alpha Helix, which is covered with aquaria and cages of animals and specimens brought in during yesterday’s collection. Then back into the air-conditioned lab for their experimental and analytical work. The morning activity is interrupted briefly by lunch, and the lab work or animal collection continues until just before the evening meal when again, imagine ten scientists in deckchairs gazing westwards towards the setting sun as it sinks through a towering mass of thunderhead clouds, each lost in his own thoughts.  Dinner was followed by a seminar and further work in the lab. Apart from visiting the group that was allocated the prefabricated hut on the sandbank, there was no going ashore for walks through the jungle, which was impenetrable.  I managed to join up with a bat expert from the University of Florida and was thereby able to visit clearings by the river at dusk where the bat nets had been set up.  This was the height of the rainy season and the river was at its maximum height.  Looking back, a small error in navigation or a failure of the outboard motor could have had us totally lost, drifting in a mass of islands looking in vain for the small pinpoints of light that indicated the presence of the Alpha Helix, the only haven in hundreds of square miles of a watery wilderness. 
The “Alpha Helix” was in a very real way a measure of America’s economic success from four centuries of decimating its northern woodlands and prairies.  As a generous but extravagant gift to the world it was an unsustainable gesture to pure science.  Cocooned in my air conditioned segment of United States urban culture, living on thick steaks and frozen vegetables, every so often I had to remind myself that the life expectancy of the local Brazilians in their small riverside clearings was in the mid forties.  The nearest hospital was a day’s journey down river and for most of the native inhabitants of the Amazon there was no access to medical services at all.  One of our local animal catchers with pneumonia was cured overnight with one or two shots of our antibiotics. If we were not there he would, more likely than not, have died.
The Rio Negro
Even at noon, the river was so black that at a depth of a few inches light penetration was only one-tenth as bright as light on its surface. At two feet it is only one-hundredth as bright; at six feet. there is no light at all. Fish had evolved a non-visual communication system that consisted of making a language based on electrical clicks.  One of these fish caught in our nets turned out to be a new species of fresh water stingray. 
Unlike the Amazon’s clear-water tributaries, the Rio Negro does not originate primarily in mountains flowing rapidly through relatively narrow channels, but meanders sluggishly across flatland, jungle and swamp areas. Each year at flood stage it overflows its banks, while draining some 253,000 sq. miles. A Texan told me, that its tributaries covered an area almost as vast as that of his home state. In the process, its waters dissolve untold quantities of plant juices and tree sap. These function as a natural insecticide and are responsible for the river being relatively free of water dwelling insects.
The jungle
My first impression of the forest was something of a let down.  I expected to see a riot of tropical flowers, parrots and at least hear the howls of spider monkeys.  Superficially it resembled quiet, neglected overgrown British woodland. However, the insects did not disappoint.  They were everywhere and provided a quiet, steady background of humming, squeaking and chirping throughout the day.
On closer inspection almost every tree was a different species.  This points up the biological diversity of the region, which is staggering when you concentrate on a local study of any group of animals and plants in detail.  Settling down to butterfly collecting for example, it is usual to see around 300 different kinds in a day. On a good day you might count between four and five hundred, and you would not have to travel more than a third of a mile in any direction to see them.  Although there are many species, there are not many individuals.  This accounts for the jungle’s low visual impact.   Although it is possible to collect more individuals of a given family of butterflies in a day than the total number of species in the whole of North America, the bag would comprise no more than half a dozen specimens of the commonest species and a single specimen would represent most of the rest.  Butterflies, bats and rodents are particularly diverse and represent a surge in biodiversity that occurred in response to a regional burst of evolution of plant life.
The science
My short stay on the Rio Negro changed my academic mind-set and future career path.  I went to the Amazon as a technology orientated biochemist to work on the chemical evolution of Amazon freshwater stingrays.  As it is presently understood, rays go back through the fossil record some 400 million years, surviving at least four global mass extinctions that caused the loss of 80% of the planet’s larger animals.  Taxonomists and others endlessly debate the particulars. Although they pre-date our own evolution by hundreds of millions of years, our distant relationship with the rays can be traced through our blood chemistry.
The evolution of life from a single starter cell, something like a bacterium, is written in the composition of the fluids of our cells and the blood that bathes them.  Their chemistry tells us that we are descendants of aquatic vertebrates and are able to survive on land because we can make the substance urea to package our waste nitrogen for excretion.  In contrast, our aquatic ancestors used ammonia for this purpose, a much simpler but more toxic substance for land dwellers because of the limited amounts of water available to flush it out of the body.  The freshwater rays of the Amazon are a key species in these respects, because their marine cousins have high levels of urea in their blood which stops them becoming dehydrated in the high salt environment.  Its function is to keep the body fluids in balance with the high concentration of sea salts in which, as obligatory ocean dwellers, they are immersed.  It was my task to unravel this mystery. My conclusion was that a common ancestor of the rays with a salty blood, first evolved in the sea, where it excreted ammonia.  A new form evolved which entered freshwater and coped with the lower salt content of rivers by lowering the salt content of its blood. It then learned to make urea and was able to return to the sea using urea to concentrate its blood back to the level in other marine animals. The rays of the Amazon were the outcome of a fourth bout of evolution and had been able to re-enter the river system, no doubt adapting to the massive flows of fresh water into the ocean environment, by ceasing to make urea.
Regarding the ecology of these fish, even today there is still a lack of adequate information on their life histories for most species of the family, which prevents precise assessments of their conservation status. In general this highlights a gap in the ecological knowledge of the expedition because all of us were either biochemists or physiologists.  The ecology of the river was a closed book.   Now, there is direct evidence of human impact on the rays, including habitat degradation from river damming and mining, as well as the ornamental fish trade, pressures that have led to a growing concern for the survival of several species. So far, five of Amazonia’s freshwater rays have been cited in the international ‘Red List’ as threatened species.
This was my main project, but I also took the opportunity to find out why turtles are able to survive, buried in mud at the bottom of the river without oxygen, and studied what triggered the legendary ferocious behaviour of the Red Piranha.  In both of these projects I was slipping away from laboratory experimentation towards the realm of ecology.
Surprisingly, because of the limited time available for preparation and execution, the trip was very productive in terms of the research, but more importantly in the long run it began a process of connecting me with a greater scheme of things. Sitting high in the prow of the Alpha Helix, gazing through the incoming multicoloured storm clouds towards the Andes, I learned to see myself as part of a gigantic web of life.  I began to lose the fetters of the western worldview, which since the first Neolithic farmers has regarded humans as separate and above Nature. We do not really need close proximity to jungles to appreciate this, but it is easier there in the presence of so much to wonder at.  Losing ourselves in the heady aroma of sun-warmed bracken of a Welsh hillside, paddling through the lap of ocean waves or delighting in watching small birds chatter and play, can loosen the narrow worldview and bring us closer to Nature and to a more fundamental human nature. At the core of oneness with Nature are the spiritual, ethical and moral questions about who we are and how we want to live in the world.
Becoming more myself
Looking back I can see that I was really only becoming ‘more myself’ because, although I could not articulate it at the time, my boyhood collections of bees and butterflies made when cycling through the Lincolnshire Wolds was really my fundamental mind set.  It was diverted into studying the mechanics of life through an academic education, which stressed the importance of working at the new chemical frontiers of biology with the best mentors that you could persuade to take you on
In Amazonia I was but a tiny speck out-numbered by Other Beings.  They carried the message that people should always be conscious that they are part of the natural world, inextricably tied to vast complicated biophysical systems that sustain their lives. Although I hardly touched the forest’s time scale of life there were signs everywhere that it was in constant flux.  A seed germinates and a stunted seedling battles for decades against the dense shade.  Then the buttress roots of some ancient tree fail and it falls, letting a shaft of light strike the forest floor.  The long suppressed seedling suddenly enters into the full vigour of delayed youth, grows rapidly from sapling to maturity, declines into the uncertainty of senility through many centuries, dropping millions of seeds upon the rotting debris of its own ancestors, only one of which ripens another generation. 
Any other way of looking at Nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from it is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behaviour.   Being in the Amazon forced me to quickly recognize and honour nonhuman Nature as a world we did not create, a world with its own independent, nonhuman reasons for being as it is. The interests of people cannot be identical to those of every other creature of the earth.  To take the opposite attitude is bound to foster irresponsible behaviour. In reminding me of the world we did not make, the Amazon raised profound feelings of humility and respect.  These are lessons for confronting our fellow beings and the earth itself, helping us set responsible limits to human mastery.  Places with wild things are, symbolically at least, where we should focus our education and discover practical ways to try to withhold our power to dominate.
Wallace Stegner once wrote of:
“the special human mark, the special record of human passage, that distinguishes man from all other species. It is rare enough among men, impossible to any other form of life. It is simply the deliberate and chosen refusal to make any marks at all. . . . We are the most dangerous species of life on the planet, and every other species, even the earth itself, has cause to fear our power to exterminate. But we are also the only species which, when it chooses to do so, will go to great effort to save what it might destroy”.
Up until the 1960s the myth of Amazon was encapsulated in its vastness.  It is so immense in all respects that it appeared that we could somehow leave Nature untouched by our passage, but this is an illusion.  As living beings, we cannot help leaving marks on the world and the more people multiply the bigger the marks.  Our dilemma is to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave. In the broadest sense, the Amazon teaches us to ask whether the Other must always bend to our will, and, if not, under what circumstances it should be allowed to flourish along with our interventions. In the 1960s, destruction of the region’s wildness was already evident in the large-scale logging, damming and dredging, with no thought for the Other. But this was just a continuation of what had begun when the first Native Americans crossed through Panama about fifty millennia ago.  When Europeans founded Belém, thousands of years of slash and burn had made its mark through incorporating the forest into the human food chain.
When we contemplate the wildness of other beings of land water and air we find their Otherness compels our attention. In forcing us to acknowledge that they are not of our making, that they have little or no need of our continued existence, they recall for us a creation far greater than our own. In the diversity of the Amazon, we need no reminder that a tree has its own reasons for being, quite apart from us. The same is less true in the gardens we plant and tend ourselves: there it is far easier to forget the Otherness of the tree.  Indeed, one could almost measure wilderness by the extent to which our recognition of its Otherness does not require a conscious, willed act on our part.  Wildness is more a state of mind than a fact of Nature, and the state of mind that today most defines wildness is wonder.  The wonder is that we are part and parcel of the Earth, small but numerous pieces of its cycles, successions and dependencies. 
Musing about these things on the prow of the Alpha Helix, I felt I was close to the life of the native South Americans, most of who had long ago been dispossessed of our island anchorage.  Yet I was in a place where the white-tailed deer browsed the life of trees into its own life, reincarnating the wildness of the trees in its own form. The hunter killed the deer, its entrails fed the trees where it died; at home it feeds the hunter’s body, and in feeding his body the trees and the deer feed the one billion bacteria that inhabit three inches of his gut; they feed the one million spirochetes that live in his mouth; they feed the brontosaur-like mites that thrive by devouring the secretions on his eyelashes.
From the trees his womenfolk took branches to make the basket that carried the forest’s berries home.  When he died, his friends and family buried him, and he fed the trees and the berry bushes that feed the quetzal birds that spread the seeds.  He fed the children of the deer that fed him and his body’s inhabitants, and that will, in turn, feed his children. This great feeding body is still the world, countless parts and parcels that evolved together, mutually, relating in the endless dance of evolution. We are all the dust of old stars. We are the form that wildness bred to become conscious of its Self: nothing more. 
The aftermath
I flew out of the Amazon knowing that we have to educate to honour the wild, the Other within and the Other that even in our domestic habitat still exists next door.  It survives in the exotic mossy microcosms of the cracks in the pavements as much as the exotic that lives three thousand miles away, where even forty years ago it was already ceasing to exist.   Before I left for South America I was in discussions with the Wellcome Foundation to head up a pharmacological team in their Beckenham laboratories.  I was also in contact with the University of Guildford about its vacant chair of biochemistry.  Back home I realised my real interest was in the coming of age of ecology, a phrase that was first used by the media in 1970.  Early in that year a photograph taken from outerspace showed our world as a cloud-enshrouded ball surrounded by endless empty blackness.  By that time I had accepted the chair of zoology in Cardiff, a department overflowing with ecologists, and was developing new cross-subject courses and research strategies for living and working on an overcrowded planet.  This area of conservation management that was in its infancy in the 1960s has determined the destination of many of my students.  My own research shifted from the study of how hormones interact with receptors in their target organs.  Our organs are miniature
versions of the Amazon Basin and I began to investigate how cells in organs know their neighbours and whether or not they should be, say a muscle, a nerve cell or a cancer cell.  This led me to define a new field, which I called ‘cellular ecology’, which applies to the growth of embryos, cancers and the aging of organs.   By interfering with the signals passing between cells that control this balance of partition of the body’s resources it was possible to change the cellular composition.  In particular, it was possible to stop cancer cells growing.  This idea of internal complexity now dominates the modern view of a tumour; we now believe that many, and perhaps all, malignant tumours have at least two classes of cells: cancer stem cells and the bulk of the tumour. But, the tumour recruits other cells to assist it. Depending on the tumour type, these could include cells to build new blood vessels and fibres, which become the tumour body.   Other interactions may depend on the tumour type.  Again, this was a more or less direct outcome of my time on the Alpha Helix.
Another, totally unexpected experience that stuck to me was the protective attitude of the native Amazonians towards animals.  Even those that were dangerous or poisonous were not treated as enemies.  In the 1980s I was invited to become a member of the government council that was tasked with setting up a national organisation to care for the Welsh environment.  I was able to develop a research programme aimed at understanding how individuals define their own
value orientations toward wildlife and biodiversity, how these value systems have been shaped by regular interaction with nature within a rural setting, and whether these rural residents view their value systems as distinct from other population groups.
While insights into the complexities of rural environmental values are interesting in an academic sense, they are also highly relevant from an applied perspective. Specifically, land managers would be wise to be recognise the local values associated with species richness and biodiversity, thereby better allowing placement of management costs/benefit discussions within the most appropriate management framework for local residents. This attitude of care does not only apply to wildlife but also the management of the large amounts of wastes we add to the global food chain in town and farm.  In other words, consideration of place-based value systems should be incorporated into discussions of land management practices and policies that support biodiversity over the long-term.  This is the main theme of cultural ecology, a subject which developed out of work I did with the Cambridge University Examination Syndicate in the 1980s to bring wildlife and habitat management towards the centre of the school curriculum.
I moved on to chair the UK Conservation Management Consortium, where I am setting up demonstration citizen’s heritage networks to show how it is possible for communities to use the internet to share information on their heritage assets and communicate their findings and management plans.  In this context, values that individuals associate with wildlife and biodiversity are many. Some individuals view wildlife through a utilitarian lens, emphasizing nature’s material benefits as derived by humans. From a very different perspective, individuals may attach a spiritual reverence for elements of the natural world emphasizing an ethical reciprocity between humans, other creatures, and Nature more generally.

Communing with wildness

Looking back to those days when environmental threats had first begun to expand beyond the fear of nuclear war, which in the late 1950s was a real possibility, to include the impact of car emissions, solid waste, toxic metals, oil spills and even heat, it is obvious that reason has not compelled us to respect and care for wild Nature, and we have no basis for the belief that it will in the future.  The theory of evolution connects us to the natural world, explaining how and why we are a part of Nature. The idea of progress through economic development, on the other hand, projects a series of short-term political programmes for increasing family wealth.  There is no long-term destination.   I remember whilst carrying out research at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory just prior to the Amazon trip, hearing talk about the limited capacity of the world’s oceans to absorb human-produced carbon dioxide.   Now global warming is accepted as the major threat to the economic well being of our descendants.  All the science of climate change was in place in the 1960s, but it had not been connected with the destruction of civilisation based on burning fossil carbon. 
Philosophical arguments are notoriously incapable of compelling human beings to alter their behaviour.  We are left with the vital importance of residency in wild Nature to produce knowledge of that wildness as the most practical means of preserving the wild. What we need now is a new tradition of the wild that teaches us how human beings live best by living in and studying the wild without taming it or destroying it. Such a tradition of the wild existed.  It is as old as the Upper Palaeolithic when human beings were always living in, travelling through, and using lands we now call wilderness; they knew it intimately.   It is the tradition of the people that first populated the Americas, a tradition that influenced Taoism and informed major Chinese and Japanese poetic traditions. Most of us, when we think about it, realize that after our own direct experience of wildness, it is art, literature, myth and lore that have contributed most to our love of wild places, animals, plants, even, perhaps, to our love of human wildness, which is now only expressed for most people in sex.  It was the sum total of myth, folklore and sheer beauty of ducks, swans and geese that converted Peter Scott from hunter to protector and artist-recorder, making him the ‘patron saint of conservation’.  For in wildness we respond to the sights and sounds aeons older than any of us.  These wild legacies stir the imagination to produce the language we so desperately lack, the medium so necessary to communicate a shared vision.  This is the role of art, literature, lore, myth, and fable.  The valleys of the Ganges, the Nile, and the Rhine yielded their art based on local Nature that was created by people who lived there. Most of Amazonian art is on a lesser scale and was made of perishable materials such feathers from many species, including the scarlet and blue and yellow macaws and toucans, and materials including snakeskin, plant fibres, bark, nut shells, insect casings, seeds and plant fibres.   I have only seen native art in museums, where it is portable and intended to decorate, enhance, and empower the human body. It also represents Nature, totemic animals, deities, myths, and culture heroes.  The environment is expressed in the brilliant luminescence of headdresses, masks, and ornaments decorated with bird feathers, delicate pottery used for serving food and drink during festivals and rituals, fibre and wood dance costumes, and fine textile tunics. Some of the decorated costumes and ornaments were worn by shamans during curing rituals, chiefs displaying power and authority, initiates participating in rituals into adulthood, and hosts and guests of community feasts.  Most of these cultural roles for art are extinct.  In 1990, there were 220 distinct native groups in the Amazon basin, by 2005 only a hundred or so groups remained, about 100,000 people, who were still practicing traditional lifestyles. The rich surroundings of the forest dwellers provided all their needs. They have been replaced by landless settlers from the urban slums with no knowledge of how to handle a jungle without trees.

This gap in our social evolution reminds me that we are now part of an urbanised international community and need a new art of “becoming and being through Nature” This phrase defines the process of Experiential Ecopsychology.  To take this path towards Nature, Sylvie Shaw says we need quiet reflective moments to:

“…. open up a path of communication to the wider world where we can get in touch with our inner Natures and begin to understand who we really are. In this way, being through Nature is a time of healing and restoration. “Becoming through Nature” assumes that the earth has something to teach us about ourselves and our relationship with it”.
Engaging with the process of picturing Nature in literature and art is to gather attributes of ourselves highlighted in the hardness of rocks, the slipperiness of fish, the piercing eye of an eagle and the animalness of a fallen tree. These pictures say we are just one among many other beings sharing a minor planet.  The metaphors then become messages for replacing talk of maintaining our authority willy-nilly over Nature, by a gentler more self-effacing ethic towards managing our authority in favour of other beings of land, water and air.
I will finish with the music of Heito Villa-Lobos, regarded throughout the world as the foremost Brazilian composer of the 20th century.  Villa-Lobos used his creativity and the unlimited cultural resources of Brazil to discover new textures and rhythms in music, and adopted Impressionistic techniques and Brazilian folk music. Villa-Lobos was a troubadour; through his exuberant imagination he was able to express the sentiments of an entire nation, which was made up of immigrants from Europe, the Negro slaves from Africa, and the indigenous natives. Uirapurù (The Enchanted Bird) is based on several Amazonian myths about a legendary bird that sings an enchanting song deep within the rain forest. The Indians considered it the king of love and young men would seek it in groups.  In Bachianas Brazilieras he makes the human voice mimic the chatter of birdsong in the forest.  “As Tres Marias” is the smallest of a group of three short piano pieces. They were composed in his later years when he was deeply involved in music education, and reflects his concern with children and how to communicate with them sharing their joys and aspirations. The collection is based on a well-known folk story in Brazil, which is roughly translated as follows:
 “Once upon a time, there were three little girls, the three Marias of the earth, who romped and played in the countryside of Brazil. They were happy and gay and the best of friends. Always smiling, they travelled the path of life together. So that this trinity might be served as a perpetual symbol for humanity, they are preserved as eternal stars in the heavens to brighten the way for other children of our planet”.

The Alpha Helix was well stocked with records of Villa Lobos music.  Whenever I hear it I am transported back to the Rio Negro where I experienced in a rational and very direct way that separation, the boundary between ourselves and other people and between Nature, and ourselves is illusion.

Making mindmaps of Nature

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

This is a kind of coda to my previous blog and was prompted by a visit to the Welsh fairy tale castle called Castell Coch (the Red Castle), recreated by the celebrated High Victorian architect, William Burgess for the fabulously wealthy third marquess of Bute, John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, in pursuit of their vision of the Middle Ages.  
I had been reading David Lewis Williams book, The Mind in the Cave, which had opened up ideas about prehistoric cave art being an ecological mind map.   That is to say the paintings of herbivores and their predators, produced by Stone Age communities in dark caverns tens of thousands of years ago, were part of a survival toolkit to make sense of their tribe’s dependence on a wild and uncertain food chain dominated by bloody carnivory and cross-clan rivalry.   I was therefore primed to see the rooms of Castell Coch, stuffed full of colourful beings of land, water and air in cosmic harmony, as a Victorian expression of animals as symbols of human frailties and dependencies.   This is very evident in the iconography of the vaulted drawing room.  At the apex is a starburst of butterflies, which move in a procession down the ribs through the realm of stars to the Earth’s biosphere filled with birds in flight.  The whole symbolises Nature’s rich fertility and its inherent transience. 
The Welsh pictures are creations of anonymous craftsmen working in the spirit of Catholic Medievalism and therefore comparable to the fresh spiritual world of the Upper Palaeolithic, where scientists and artists were one and the same person.  They remained so until the Renaissance.  Only then did ‘art’ begin to break free of mysticism and emerge as highly personalised expressions of individual freedom of thought and action. 
This comparison across many millennia also highlights the persistence of worship as a mystery to be participated in.  Our Palaeolithic ancestors gave their hearts and minds seamlessly to pictorial expressions of their being at one with the cosmos.  We, their descendants, give our hearts to the love, awe and beauty we have for ‘the other beings’ of Nature around us, and we bend our minds to understanding how to tap into Nature in order to secure for ‘ourselves’ an ever more comfortable life. Our divided modern personality at its extremes envisages art and science as separate poles of human endeavour, whereas in the Stone Age, being religious was as natural as wanting to find out how to hit a piece of flint to make an effective arrow head.  With the passage of thirty millennia, splitting flint led inevitably to the mechanics of splitting atoms.  In our atomic age, for those who care to look, the universe can be explained without the need for divine intervention. In looking for a supernatural force, one would predict aberrations from natural laws. But despite the evidence we might hope to find, the net balance of energy in the cosmos appears to be near zero. Scientists have yet to detect any input at the point of origin or anywhere else. There is no clear fingerprint of God. The Big Bang is entirely within the realm of natural possibility. Life on Earth is a marvellous cosmic circumstance.  Although a rarity perhaps in such a vast universe, many rarities would be expected to occur.
Making art is on a par with making a spiritual life.  Both are natural behaviours aimed at reinforcing the realm of human consciousness, which is the major evolutionary distinctiveness of primate evolution.  In this respect, things of the mind have not really changed for humankind since the Upper Palaeolithic.  People cannot be argued into or out of a belief in spiritual mysteries.  D.H. Lawrence encompassed this truism in his poem, Terra Incognita written at the height of a human commitment to industrial development powered by coal.
There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of,
Vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps,
We know nothing of, within us.
Oh when man has escaped from the barbed-wire entanglement
Of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices,
There is a marvellous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty,
And fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life;
And me, and you, and other men and women,
And grapes, and ghouls, and ghosts and green moonlight,
And ruddy-orange limbs stirring the limbo
of the unknown air, and eyes so soft,
Softer than the space between the stars.
And all things, and nothing, and being and not-being
Alternately palpitate,
When at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure
Of Know-Thyself, knowing we can never know,
We can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort,
And dangle in a last fastidious fine delight
As the fuchsia does, dangling her reckless drop
Of purple after so much putting forth
And slow mounting marvel of a little tree.
We 21st century beings are not in a different relationship with Nature.  There is ineffable subjective mystery and there is objective scientific inevitability.  But, facing a potentially disastrous collision with the global outcome of an ever-expanding carbon economy, we have to concede there is really no cosmic separation between being and not being.   Gods cannot mediate in the human food chain, of which mind, soul and spirit are an ungodly expression of the steady state of human metabolism.  We burn like a candle flame.  We drink of mother’s milk.  Materials are added and the human flame burns more brightly.  Then the balance between addition and subtraction wavers until the flame goes out.  Mind, body and environment throughout are one.
Glen A. Love, in his essay on ecocriticism, defined the untenable separation of mind and body as:
“a dualism in which the mind, soul, or spirit retains an august autonomy derived from God or some sort of numinous stand-in, and entailing an immaculate conception in which the mind (as a “blank slate”) was assumed not to have been violated by anything so gross as a body-or as Richard Dawkins has termed it, a “survival machine.”
He goes on to say that in reality, there is not and never has been such a thing as “the environment” separate from ‘mind’.   Nothing special “surrounds” human consciousness. Our substance cannot be distinguished from its “surroundings.” There is only one earthly entity and it comprises day-to-day chemical flows into and out of the biosphere as part of an integrated planetary system that includes everything from the degradation of a rock particle and the growth and reproduction of a microbe to Albert Einstein creating the theory of relativity.
Castell Coch

Beings of land, water and air

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

Supertanker planet Earth
Parsifal is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner. It is loosely based on a 13th century epic poem of the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail.  An important episode occurs when Gurnemanz and Parsifal enter the mighty hall of the castle of the Grail. Gurnemanz is a kind of father-figure to young Parsifal, who stands by the door as if bewitched.  Gurnemanz says:
“Now observe well, and let me observe,
if you are a fool and innocent,
what knowledge may be divulged to you”.
The world has never been in greater need of ‘witless fools’, that is to say of people so described by the holders of conventional wisdom because they are promoting knowledge that runs against the grain of commonly held ideas.  Only by taking a stand against conventional thought will it be possible to discover the holy grail of sustainable development.  The goal is to be able to retain our 20th century comforts whilst releasing our grasp on the combustion of fossil carbon, and yet continue to hold our hard-won joy, admiration and one-ness in Nature. James Lovelock is one such lateral thinker who has likened us as a species to the crew of a supertanker, where the helmsman has gone to sleep and awoke to find his vessel heading straight for a rocky coast ten miles away.  The only solution is for us to scramble into a lifeboat and hope for a good landing.  There is no doubt that our international consumer civilisation is on a collision course with the physics of global warming and we have gone too far to reverse engines. Lovelock’s solution is to switch from carbon fuels to nuclear power.  The hope is this will lessen the impact of climate change and that Nature will show us the way to sound moral values when we are protected from her ills by harnessing atomic energy, the renewable cosmic mother of the universe.
Running up against global warming if we stick relentlessly with a carbon economy will not be the end of planet Earth, but it will be the termination of human civilisation based on burning carbon to maintain our energy supply.  Long before the next millennium, according to current socio-climatic models, Southern Europe will be a desert and the offshore islands of the United Kingdom will become a haven for economic migrants driven westwards to partake of the declining Atlantic rainfall. The Sahara Desert is marching northwards and has already reached Spain and Portugal. 
Return of the dry jungle
It is important to appreciate the fear of the unknown that dominated our species in its direct day-to-day conflict with the environment until coal-driven industrialisation began to spread Nature’s bounty in the 19th century.  This long held human fear of environment is encapsulated in the term ‘jungle’ with its many disturbing meanings, such as a land densely overgrown with tropical vegetation, an impenetrable thicket, a dense confused mass, a jumble made up of many confused elements, a bewildering complex or maze, a place or milieu characterized by intense, often ruthless competitive struggle for survival.  It is the survival of the fittest in the dry jungles of politics and multinational corporations that come nearest to what many people imagine will dominate international relations if we have to return to our pre-industrial fight with raw Nature.   An impoverished environmental arena for this contest is already in the making.
The first official warning to the European helmsmen of the international community came from the United Nations in 2003.  It drew attention to the fact that drought and deforestation had emerged as two of the major causes of desertification in Europe. Perennial trees or crops and seasonal ones, help maintain vegetation cover on the land throughout the year so as to prevent wind and water erosion. The vegetation helps keep the moisture level on the ground as well as under-ground, thus decreasing aridity. Conversely, forest fires and droughts contribute to erosion, land degradation and eventually desertification. The 2003 warning is encapsulated in the following statement from the UN.
“The heatwave scorching Europe and the ensuing forest fires will put the affected regions into greater vulnerability to desertification. According to a report by Radio Free Europe yesterday, forest fires in Croatia, Portugal and Spain alone have swept more than 250,000 hectares of land during the recent heat wave in Europe
In Portugal, this adds to a total of 215,000 hectares of land devastated by fires so far this year, or 7% of Portugal’s total 3.3 million hectares of woodland. Already more than one third of its land is at risk of desertification. In Spain, 31 percent of its land is under serious threat of desertification. Eighty-seven percent of the territory in Italy responded positively to vulnerability to desertification.
Agricultural productivity due to prolonged drought and heat among Europe Union member states is already expected to lower output by about six percent from last year.   With forest fires and land degradation, however, agricultural productivity is expected to drop further, if left unchecked.
Nevertheless, these trends are not expected to abate soon, as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) predicted that extreme weather conditions might increase in the future”.
In fact, the first international warning had been sounded a decade earlier from the distant eastern borderlands of Eastern Europe.  In 1993, President Ilyumzhinov of the Kalmyk Republic declared a state of emergency in response to a major deterioration in the local environment. The crisis resulted from intensive land degradation and a shortage of water, together with the increasing human load on the natural environment.  It coinciding with a decline in the health of the population and falls in both life expectancy and the quality of life. These, in turn were perceived to threaten the gene pool of the Kalmyk people – and dramatically the new phrase ‘ecological ethnocide’ was invented to highlight the situation.  Kalmykia now contains Europe’s first desert.
In the light of these recent accelerated trends towards desertification, Europe will share the fate of North Africa.  Here, since prehistoric times, human factors have had a dominant role in desertification, with over-grazing, over-farming, misuse of irrigation and the unsustainable demands of a growing population all contributing to environmental degradation.   Abandonment of marginal agricultural lands is an important contribution to desertification.  In Europe this socio-economic process started during the 1950s due to the industrialization of the countries involved along with an increase in the cost of cultivation, a decrease of profits and the changes in the trade regulations. There have also been social incentives, which encouraged the farmers to move to urban centres more attractive to them. By 1990 between 10 and 20 percent of agricultural land in the Mediterranean countries was abandoned.  Whether an abandoned agricultural land will move towards recovery or desertification depends on the state of the land at the time of its abandonment and on what follows afterwards.  Some kind of environmental management is essential.
By 2005 the United Nations University International Network on Water, Environment and Health, warned that more needed to be done by the international community to combat desertification. Drylands, which range from “dry sub-humid” to “hyper-arid” regions, make up more than 40 percent of the world’s land surface and are home to two billion people. The largest area stretches from Saharan Africa across the Middle East and Central Asia into parts of China.  Most of Australia is also classified as drylands, along with much of the western U.S., parts of southern Africa, and patches of desert in South America.
The report concluded that that up to 20 percent of those areas had already suffered some loss of plant life or economic use as a consequence of desertification.  It said that global warming was likely to exacerbate the problem, causing more droughts, heat waves and floods.  Desertification has also been linked to health problems caused by dust storms, poverty and a drop in farm production, with infant mortality in drylands double the rate elsewhere in developing nations.  The problem causes dangerous changes to the environment on a global scale, the report warned, with dust storms in the Gobi and Sahara deserts blamed for respiratory problems in North America and damage to coral reefs in the Caribbean.  Scientists estimate that a billion tons of dust from the Sahara is lifted into the atmosphere each year.  This is the return of the dry jungle where the fight to stave off uncaged Nature is renewed.
The human mindset behind the unstoppable momentum of ‘Supertanker Earth’ is encapsulated in the words of the economist George Reisman: 
“Thirty years ago, the land under the house I live in, in Southern California, was empty desert. Had I wanted to sleep in the same location that my bedroom now stands on, I would have had to bring a sleeping bag, take precautions against rattlesnakes, scorpions, and coyotes, and hope I could find a place for my sleeping bag such that I wouldn’t have rocks pressing into my body. If it rained, I would get wet. If it was cold, I would be cold. If it was hot, I would be hot. Going to the bathroom would be a chore. Washing up would be difficult or impossible.
How incomparably better is the environment provided by my house and my bedroom. I sleep on a bed with an innerspring mattress. I don’t have to worry about snakes, scorpions, or coyotes. I’m protected from the rain, the cold, and the heat, by a well constructed house with central heating and air conditioning. I have running water, hot and cold, a flush toilet, a sink, a shower, and a bathtub, in fact more than one of each of these things, and I have electricity and most of the conveniences it makes possible, such as a refrigerator, a television set, a VCR, and CD and DVD players”
In other words, the human brain is hard-wired to take the easiest options for a more comfortable life.  Reisman was actually responding to the environmentalists who encaspulate the problem of world development in terms of the loss of diverse wildlife habitats, which they say should be sacrosanct, irrespective of human wants, because of their intrinsic value.  He goes further in his condemnation of their policies to combat global warming:
“All advice, all policy recommendations emanating from the environmentalist movement must be summarily rejected unless and until they can be validated on the basis of a pro-man, pro-wealth, pro-capitalist standard of value. Such a standard will never imply such a thing as the destruction of the energy base of industrial civilization as the means of addressing global warming.
The environmental movement is the philosophic enemy of the human race. It should be treated as such. If we value the material well-being and, indeed, the very lives of billions of our children and grandchildren, we must treat it as such. We must treat environmentalism as our mortal enemy”.
Environmentalism is being posed as the destroyer of civilisation.
Caging the savage
On August 8th, 2006 the following message was posted by ‘Prodigal Son’ to the forum discussing the question as to whether nuclear power is a viable option for our future energy needs.
“Civilization is a good thing. It makes this forum we’re posting on possible. The fact neither you nor your mother died when you were born is another pretty good aspect. Lights, books, and readily available food are also quite nice.
Can civilization be made better? Yes. Is ‘American’ civilization flawed? Yes. Is ‘turning’ to some romantic notion of being ‘one’ with the Earth by embracing fantasy notions of how ‘primitives’ lived a solution to our problems? No.
Mother Nature is a cruel bitch that has inflicted misery and death on mass numbers of people. I’m glad she’s in chains. Mother Nature is like a cow. You lock it up so it doesn’t shit all over the barnyard, but you don’t keep it so chained up and stressed that it produces bad milk.
My point? A happy medium can be established”. 
The fierce aboriginal bottleneck through which the U.S.A. was birthed is forcibly described by Captain John Smith in his first-hand chronicle of the 17th century expedition that established the British settlement of Jamestown: no romantic he!  His was an art-free, beleaguered community.  Art came with the romanticising that followed successful harvests and extermination of native opposition to the invaders. 
In time, the European exposure to the jungle’s lethal secrets moved to Africa.   Joseph Conrad in his novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, based on his experiences in command of a steamer on the Congo River, describes the uncomfortable contact of Europeans with an unmapped tropical Africa.  He also explores the theme of darkness lurking beneath the uncharted surface of even “civilized” persons.  A similar message had been painted by Hieronymus Bosch and created by Goya, in his engraving ‘The sleep of reason brings forth monsters’.
“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were Kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, think, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances”.
Conrad was aware that aboriginal cultures are not pervaded by harmony and spiritual interconnectedness with environment.  This is a superficial New Age image of tribal societies.  The paradise myth was reinforced by the discovery of painted animals of hunter gathering societies expressed as cave art, and was given as an explanation of the mysterious Adena serpent mounds in North America.  In contrast, the reality of humanity’s wrestling match with Nature was expressed in the Mythic art of the settled cultures of ancient Egypt, where cultivated land was called the gift of the great Nile   Hellas was known as woman and mother.  In Russia, the homeland was called it the mother-provider. Losing soil fertility was equivalent to a national disaster.
Art and environmental well-being
Ever since one of the sub-groups of the apes became human, our social evolution as Homo sapiens has gone hand in hand with inventions to improve human well-being.  Artistic endeavour was one of the first attempts to understand the pressing environment by giving it order in the mind.  Arguments still rage around the precise meanings of Upper Palaeolithic art, but there is general agreement that it was symbolic of the need to understand and codify conflict in the ecological setting of the Stone Age, where feeding a family involved participating in the surrounding violence of predation and tribal conflict.  The creation of a spirit world was a key step in social adaptation.  This world of the mind encompassed the large mammals of the Palaeolithic environment as artistic metaphors for the survival strategy of small bands of hunters dependent on carnivory.  The current unifying concept is that cave art is the outcome of trance-induced, supernatural journeys of shamans whose goal was to look into the life of things and reveal how their adherents should behave to survive. Painting a damp rock surface in the flickering light of a tallow flame was not an expression of joy in Nature.  The making of pictorial mindmaps of humankind’s relationships with the environment was then a vital part of the Homo sapiens survival toolkit produced in response to synesthetic experiences heightened by sensory deprivation in narrow rock passages and black cavernous chambers.  The view is gaining ground that synesthesia-phenomena are the basis of artistic creativity.  There is a spectrum of its expression, from a norm scattered among the mass of the population to rare persons with hallucinatory powers, such as Bosch and Goya.  Most works of art are created at the ‘normal’ end of the scale.  In contrast, Munch’s description of his state of mind that gave birth to ‘The Scream’, a pictorial metaphor of primeval fear, points to hallucination as the source of his imagery.
“I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through Nature.”
The ultimate expression of social evolution is the inventions of science, which provides us with space and time to integrate with Nature. Also, just as the roof and walls of a house shelter us from the deadlier moods of the elements, the scientific classifications of Nature shield us from our fears of a wilder kingdom: the chaos of the unknown.  Prehistoric art is bound up with the psychological meaning of homeland as a symbol of the unconscious. Its pictured bulls, bears and big cats represent dreams about untamed primitive instincts. Horses symbolise the gentler side of their ecosystem.  The caging of Nature by European artists only emerged a few centuries ago in Medieval art, where plants and animals, real and imagined, where used as symbols and illustrations of Nature’s potential fertility, beauty and its transience.
Thirty millennia after the first rock paintings were made art is still the province of human dreamers.  The French painter Henri Rousseau, a confirmed urbanite, captured the wonderful mystery of the beings with which we share planet Earth by caging them in dream paintings such as La Charmeuse de Serpents 1907.
Gregory Tozian when reviewing the paintings of the contemporary environmentalist artist Alexis Rockman recently took a more prosaic view of musing on Nature:
“Humans drift off to sleep better each night knowing that their species, alone, has been dubbed the crown of creation. There’s some comfort in the notion that the cockroaches will disappear from Eden-or at least from beneath the kitchen sink-with a few strategically placed squirts from the right aerosol can”.
Rockman’s work, like science and cave art, is concerned with ordering Nature, but with a disturbing message for the future of humankind.  Through his tapestries of hybrid, warring and mutated species he ultimately ask us what really is our relationship to Nature, to the plants and animals we are eradicating at breakneck speed.  He says his artworks are information-rich depictions of how our 21st century culture perceives and interacts with plants and animals.  They are commentaries on the feedback between new cultures and the future direction of natural history.
His painting ‘The Farm’ depicts the explosive advances in genetic engineering within the history of animal breeding. The image is a wide-angle view of a cultivated soybean field constructed to be read from left to right. The image begins with the ancestral versions of the narrow range of animals, the cow, pig, and chicken that make modern life possible.  The story pans across to an informed speculation about how these creatures might look in the future. Also included are geometrically transformed vegetables and familiar images relating to the history of genetics. Rockman says he is:
“interested in how the present and the future look of things are influenced by a broad range of pressures- human consumption, aesthetics, domestication, and medical applications among them. The flora and fauna of the farm are easily recognizable; they are, at the same time, in danger of losing their ancestral identities”. 
Many would admit that they have already lost their connection with this ‘growing to kill’ aspect of the domestic human food chain, which was a frequent bloody experience for the ancestors of most people only a few generations ago.
Rockman’s work is an expression of moral naturalism, which takes the view that moral systems are explained in terms of the social or biological properties of humans interacting with many living beings in Nature. Cave painting tells us that making art is a fundamental biological characteristic of being human.  In this evolutionary sense art has a purpose and serves a human need.  The expression of a personal view of Nature in the form of a work of art satisfies a human need by generating awareness that we are part of Nature in everything we do, from planting grain to painting a house.  Art therefore serves the preservation and survival of our consciousness.   In this respect, art is something next to religion or science, representing an order of behavioural values in the mind of the artist.  In the words of the naturalist Thoreau the big test of a philosophy is whether it helps us to solve the riddle of everyday living: “How to live, How to get the most life”.  For this test it is more important to discover the real facts of an artist’s life than peruse any of his works of art.  In this context, no artist has been more scrutinised for environmental credentials than Gauguin.
“Art is an abstraction,” Gauguin wrote, “as you dream amid Nature, extrapolate art from it.” Gauguin sought to re-enchant the world through his visions of the biodiversity of tropical islands.  In ‘Matamoe (Death, or Landscape with Peacock 1892) he creates an exotic Garden of Eden.  Verdant shades of greenery rise layer upon layer from the foreground up the sky.  A fruit-bearing palm tree crowns the scene and a lush, impenetrable forest growth surges in from the left. Earthy yellows and oranges break up the verdure, like almost living lava flows. In the middle ground, a vision of a toiling native appears to be chopping twisting, serpentine-shaped tree limbs. Behind the figure a nearby fire sends up a thick white cloud of smoke. Further up and back, two figures walk past a thatched native hut. The image is oddly still, yet pregnant with invisible South Sea heat.  A pair of peacocks strut in the foreground. The painting has also been called ‘Sleeping Eyes’, possibly weaving a connection between the male peacock’s tail feathers and the symbolic presence of death. The image states many of the contradictory and enigmatic tendencies in Gauguin’s art: the rich, complex colour palettes, the blending of “savage” (non-European native) and Christian symbolism (jungle as garden of Eden) in visual rhythms.  They express a pictorial idealization of happiness-noble, self-unaware, sexually self-possessed natives. Gauguin did not identify himself as a “savage,” neither at home in metropolitan Paris or in the relatively un-Europeanised native settlements of the South Pacific.  He painted dreamscapes, seeking less to find than to create a vision of earthly paradise.
In contrast, Henri Rousseau  (1844-1910), another dreamer and contemporary of Gauguin, was as a city bureaucratic, reflected in his nickname, “the customs official”. An employee in the Paris customs bureau he never left Paris.  Yet he worked his way into a position among the Parisian artists who were renewing the European art world at the turn of the century. It was a difficult journey. For years the art world derided his untaught icon-like figures, simple landscapes and, in his late phase, exotic jungle scenes inspired by picture books. However his “naive” compositions became an emblem that piqued the interest of the avant-garde. Rousseau’s jungle paintings consisted of ornamental variations of plant leaves, among which he set brilliantly coloured predators, natives and naked beauties. In so doing, he defined the intuitive principles of design and composition, which subsequent avant-garde artists had to work out for themselves with great effort. Ultimately winning recognition as an uncompromising modernist, Rousseau inspired comparison with Derain, Cezanne, Matisse and Gauguin. He became acquainted with Apollinaire, Delaunay, Picabia, Brancusi and other influential figures in the Parisian art world; in 1908, Picasso held a legendary banquet in his honour. Today, ‘Rousseau’s myth’, a fascinating mixture of primitive idyll and parallel universe of the mind, holds a secure place in an urban dreamland.
Environmental art and future humankind
After the Palaeolithic, the beings of land, water and air have always inhabited the dreaming human brain.  Initially they were bound up with the myths of gods who had to be placated to keep the sun in the sky, such as the bloodthirsty plumed serpent of the Aztecs.  Other legends were comforting and sometimes humorous, such as Arachne the Greek spiderwoman, who was punished because she tried to rival the gods.  Now, via the film character of Tarzan, who could speak to animals, pictures of Nature have become urban wallpaper through countless television programmes.  Post-tribal artists have entered the global market in domestic pictures.
By-passing the images of popularist environmentalism, in the 1960s, new direct connections between art and Nature developed and became among the characteristics of contemporary art. This is referred to as ‘Earth art’, a movement of artists with wide ranging goals, but all employing such materials as stones, mud, and leaves. Many earthworks, some constructed on a vast scale, are intended to help us to better understand Nature. Some often point out artists’ desires to understand, conquer, and control natural processes. Through this movement the distinction between art and Nature became increasingly blurred.
A good example of earth art is the project Art of the Desert – Holy Cartography and Land-Art.  It is a creation of Mauricio P. Bedoya a Colombian architect.  This regionally acclaimed UNEP approved project can be classed as a latter day romantic approach towards the aesthetic, spiritual and environmental enhancement of the daily lives of the Wayuu, a global aboriginal ethnic group in northern Colombia. This tribe has come off badly in its encounter with multinational investment in the search for natural resources.
Bedoya’s artistic endeavour is nevertheless considered a benchmark or point of initiation in studying the impact of deserts and desertification on other aboriginal communities elsewhere in Latin America and rest of the world.  Based on extensive interaction with the Wayuu it may be taken as a general model pointing out that people have used art to emphasise their dependence on other beings of land, water and air since time immemorial.  It can be taken as the art of unsustainability.
Following close on Earth art, as part of the search for sustainable development, came the conjoint rise of environmental ethics in the 1970s and discussions began about Nature as an independent source of moral values, rather than a mere stage for moral life which derived its value from relations among humans. A view was taken that Nature might have independent moral value; much like persons are thought to have such value, and that Nature can be an active participant in a morally virtuous life.  But for this to happen all great philosophers in history have believed that no spiritual progress could be won in the midst of the distracting corrupting pursuit of material comforts.  Even today, economic simplicity is thought to be crucial for people to tap into pagan animism in an age of social fragmentation.  However, all national governments are committed to on-going economic development powered by a mix of renewable energy, including nuclear power, and fossil fuel, providing it is coupled technically with the fixation of the carbon emissions.  The role for environmental art is, as stated in the manifesto of, to advance creative efforts to improve our relationship with the natural world.  The goal is to inform, inspire and connect people through environmental art whilst encouraging the creation of new work that serves both communities and ecosystems.  To achieve this goal, art comes in line with other human behaviours that aid the preservation and survival of our consciousness in the coming age of sustainability. This equivalence of behaviours was perceived by Daniel Conrad writing on the topic of aesthetics in science and art: 
“Consider again things that invoke feelings of beauty (music, poetry, painting, Nature, mathematics, cosmology). They all have at least this in common:
·         a structure (including texture and detail) that provokes and challenges specific parts of the mind:
·         the parts that perceive and interpret, that make sense, that draw out meaning and pattern from initially random input, that creatively organize and make sense out of a chaotic universe.
And this provocation occurs through an implied or explicit transformation, even if it is just a simple transformation of paint into an image, or a metaphor in a poem, or a melody from a sequence of sounds”.
Transferring Nature from the imagination to a rectangular two-dimensional canvas cage fulfils Daniel Conrad’s critieria to make sense out of our place in a chaotic universe.  In the 21st century it can fulfil a fundamental need is to bring our private economy close to Nature’s economy.  Thoreau described the response in this way:
“I derive real vigor from the scent of the gale wafted over the naked ground, as from strong meats, and realize again how man is the pensioner of Nature.  We are always conciliated and cheered when we are fed (such) an influence, and our needs are felt to be part of the domestic economy of Nature.”
For most people, a picture in the style of a Gauguin reverie, a Rousseau jungle or a medieval tapestry serves the same purpose.  They satisfy a human need for a mystical experience in our global pro-man, pro-wealth, pro-capitalist culture that from the Enlightenment has been built to protect us from Nature by the application of rational beliefs and actions.
James Lovelock:Nuclear power is the only green solution:
Settlement of Jamestown:
Kalmykia in transition:
Contemporary jungle art:
The Wayuu:
Tarzan: Images of engulfment:
Earth honouring paintings by Susan Cohen Thompson:
Paintings of Alexis Rockman:
George Reisman’s Blog on Economics, Politics, Society, and Culture:
Jungle’s lethal secrets:
The jungle art of Conrad and Rousseau:
Vision on the rocks:
Art and synesthesia: