An Attempt to Clarify Culture as Ecosystem 2

I know that my last post, Culture as Ecosystem 2 was unclear to many readers.  This idea that our arts culture is a living, breathing ecosystem is very difficult to pin down.  And even though I have pondered this possibility for a decade or more, I have no template or road map from the musings of others to follow.  In some ways I believe I was guided to this point by two books: Gary Snyder’s The Real Work: Interviews and Text 1964-1979, and Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.  (We can get into specifics of these texts later if required).

As I earlier stated, I began thinking of our aesthetic culture as being a living system with quasi-biological functions.  The water gets clouded because it goes both ways: Our socio-ecological universe also gets expressed aesthetically (for better or worse – Ecosystem as Culture).  The older I get and the deeper I penetrate these ideas, the more the boundaries dissolve into each other.  The other day I visualized it as an ocean tide that ebbs and flows.  At a minus low tide, we can get out and tide pool among the barnacles, starfish and nudibranchs.  The high tide washes up and leaves a debris field a the high water mark for us to pick over for shells, rocks and other detritus.

Where I often get into trouble is where I try to fence these ideas in and corral them to be still enough to examine or measure.  The boundaries are too often overly synthetic and omit aberrations.  It is like the difference between a guitar and a violin.  A guitar has frets and you can only get a note by playing between the frets which has limitations.  A violin has no frets and therefore, there is no note that cannot be found.  This does not account for the notes that only a dog can hear.

That is my dilemma and my difficulty in trying to associate and correlate these thoughts.  The boundaries are dissolving.  I will however try to move on and explore another tributary in the current of my emergent ideas.

I made an obscure discovery in a new favorite book.  The book is John Valient’s Tiger: A True Story of Vengance and Survival. The book itself is not unrelated to the discussion of non-human will and intent.  It is the account of of intelligence and malice in Amur Tigers of the Primorye region of Southeast Siberia.  There is astonishing and suspenseful first person accounts of survivors of tiger attacks.

The obscure discovery I found in a passage of this book was a reference to the Estonian Biologist, Jakob von Uexkull and his contribution to the idea of Umwelt and Biosemiotics. His interest was in how organisms or “beings subjectively perceive their environment” and called the “subjective spacio-temporal worlds Umwelt.”  Much of his idea is premised on “carriers of significance.”

It seems as though one of his most powerful arguments for this idea is found in the tick.     A tick has very specialized and specific conditions for survival (presence of butyric acid, 37 degrees celsius, and hairy typology of mammals) and it is only interested in these carriers of significance.

Uexkull also identified other elements that seem useful in my thinking about Socio-ecology and aesthetics.  He includes the elements of , Perceived World, Impulse, Exchange, and Intersections of Significance (In my notes I can’t tell if this one is Uexkull or me. I had a friend sit down and help translate the german).  My take away from Uexkull (and my stretch) is that all organisms inhabit and intersect with carriers of significance, exchange and react according to their interest.

This idea is very interesting and helpful.  Yet, it seems to omit chance, luck and aberration.  Many scientists can get touchy about ideas that are not measurable and repeatable. It exposes the hazard of corralling an idea to get it to hold still for a picture.  However when I meditate on Ginkgo Trees, Rhinoceros in Southern France, Oak Restoration, or a Leonardo Drawing of water dynamics, the idea of Kinesthetic Memory ebbs and flows.

Our culture is an ecosystem.  And it has a life cycle.

I am not sure I helped clarify things.  I may have only clouded the water.  But we are out in open ocean.


Culture as Ecosystem 2

I appreciate Jon Andelson’s comments on my last post. Not only has he written much about the intentional community at the Amana Colonies, he also directs a center on Prairie Studies.  He has a great deal of credibility when examining these intersections.

He correctly questions whether a n ecosystem like a riparian forest has a mind or will. This possibility is not an original idea for me. In the acclaimed book Botany of Desire, Michael Polan forwards the theory that certain plants had manipulated human desire for their own evolution of survival.  In my thinking, I am exploring whether it is possible to ascribe these anthropomorphic attributes (intent?) to a wholistic ecosystem.  I do not know  I am trying to figure out the angle.

I did have a related experience in the Dordogne region of France last year.  We spent a week in Les Eyzies where I was able to view the cave paintings ay Grotte Font de Gaume.  With Lascaux and Alta Mira now closed and Chauvet out of the question, Font de Gaume and Pech Merle are the best caves still open to the public.

I had communicated with the visitor center in advance that I was doing artistic research and was able to reserve three sessions to view the cave paintings.  Marie Helene and Jean Marie were helpful and these paintings of Bison, Reindeer and Horse were phenomenal.  Jean Marie strongly suggested that I also visit a lesser known cave at Combarelles.

I walked to few miles up the road (sketchy with traffic, next time I will drive) and met my guide Stephan.  Even though he spoke no english, he clearly communicated his passion as he led our tiny group deep into a very large, winding cave.  Unlike Font de Gaume, Combarelles has no large paintings but only engravings scratched into the rock.  Towards the furthest reach of the cave Stephan’s flashlight played over a wall with a Rhinoceros.  He moved the flashlight a foot or so and before he could speak, I said “Lion!” It was beautifully and taxonomically rendered.

There is was.  Proof that in 17,000BC, Rhinoceros and Lions walked Southern France. What was it that imprinted on this neanderthal artist’s imagination that these creature’s existence is eternalized on a cave wall?

I have another related memory.  In 1988 I was living in Seattle and took a road trip up the former channel of the Columbia River from Euphrata to Grand Coulee Dam.  On that trip I spent a night on the Columbia River at Ginkgo Petrified Forest.  Ginkgo trees are regarded as a non-native, introduced species in North America.  Yet in south-central Washington you can see proof that Ginkgo’s were indeed native here thousands of years ago.  Like the pre-historic ancestors of the Horse, it disappeared from it’s original landscape in North America and was returned by late arriving, non-native humans.

As you can see, the central focus of this thinking shifts forwards and backwards from a human to non-human vantage point.  Does this make a difference in the long view?

S. Hudson


“Culture as Ecosystem”

These are the first words in a new journal I started last year.  Directly below this are two more lines of text in smaller print:

“Human Drama as Living Organism”

“Spirit as Energy Source’

What was I thinking?  I know this was part of a powerful reaction.  I had been in a pub in London where my shoulder bag was stolen.  Inside was my journal with three years of entries.  It was a sharp loss and yet, also a wake up call.  I had been feeling restless about how my ideas were developing and the loss forced me to re-focus how I thought about and conceptualized those ideas into form. 

A few years earlier I had collaborated in an exploration of ideas with Amahia Mallea (who I am thrilled to be exploring with again in this blog).  That collaboration enabled me to freely ponder if our arts and aesthetic culture could be examined with the terms and language of biological/environmental studies and natural history.

For many years, I have befriended as many biologists as artists.  Yet, the germ of this thinking began with Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.  There was a scene where he described the earth having a respiratory system.  I started thinking I could apply this notion of a respiratory system, a circulatory system, a nervous system, etc. to our cultural environment.  This last year I have been engaged in a local environmental controversy and I am learning how deeply integral history is in the equation.

As in all human ideas, there are boundaries, terms, and time frames.  In Amahia’s excellent last post, The Horse Narrates, she states, “Historical Narratives change over time and it depends when we begin and end the story.”  I would add that there is also compressions and contortions from the motives and ideologies of the narrator.  Who decides the terms and time-line?  Is there consensus in an isolated community where there are entrenched standards and mores?  Was there a dissenting view that was swept aside?

Please indulge me.  I have a point.  Yet it will seem like I am driving us into a ditch.  I want to use this next passage to make a point about language, succession and efficacy as broader metaphors.

The environmental controversy I mentioned centers on commercial logging of public land in Blackhawk County, Iowa.  I think there was originally a good intent and desire to to restore Oak Woodlands, which are critically endangered because of climate change, fire suppression, altered flood regimes, etc.  However, the goal of restoration became subverted by the additional objective of having the restoration logging also produce revenue for the governmental sub-agency.  Before long, trees that had no relationship with Oak restoration such a Walnuts and Cottonwoods were being harvested purely for revenue.  

The language surrounding this event is distressing and fascinating.  The county is identifying native tree species such as Hackberry and Honey Locust as Invasive.  This is a word usually reserved for destructive non-native, introduced species.  Are these native species destructive and harmful? Or are they being persecuted for being successful in a changing and dynamic ecosystem where Oaks are not successful.  The Oaks are a powerful, sentimental symbolic landmark for the conservation movement and it is blasphemy to consider that they may not survive.  There is a profound desire to do something. Yet, taking extreme, invasive, and uncertain restoration measures will not only be a perpetual maintenance issue, it is expensive in the time of budget cuts.  And is it really ecologically sound in all habitats? (another blasphemy).  Are we attempting to freeze some of these ecosystems in a synthetic moment in time when the biome has its own mind and momentum?

I do not know the answer to these questions.  I know that some of the best of our county’s rare public wild-lands have been degraded by a profitable but ugly form of commercial logging. I have learned that there is less than complete consensus in the biology community about the efficacy of restoration in all habitats.  There does seem to be consensus that long ago our landscape was inhabited by  spruce trees and giant sloths.  And long before that there was a Devonian ocean bed.

How does this circle back to “Culture as Ecosystem”?  We have been exploring successional ecosystems in a long span of time.  Is it possible to examine our culture as a successional ecosystem?  What would that look like or mean?  How would this apply to art or architecture or poetry?  How would Jon apply this to intentional communities?

S. Hudson




Wole Soyinka and Ancestral Memory

In my last post, I got out onto pretty thin ice with an oblique passage about Ancestral Memory.  I asserted that, unlike new-age notions of past lives, there may be a possibility of ancestral memory passed down in our DNA from generation to generation.  I had to put some thought into where this idea got planted in my head.  I think a good place to start is the Nigerian playwright and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.

My first and lasting exposure to Soyinka was his drama, Dance of the Forest. In this play Soyinka freely shifts the drama back and forth between 2 time periods as he follows a cast of archetypal characters that are clearly reflected in both periods.  Soyinka implies that these protagonists and antagonists represent the same spirits over time.  It is a stretch, but this is likely where I began considering the notion of ancestral memory.  It was Soyinka that made it possible for me to think like a storyteller and span conceptual time in my work.  (Leslie Marmon Silko and John Steinbeck round out my development here – I wanted to think like a novelist)

It would be impossible to overstate Soyinka’s influence on my art.  He is one of my biggest heroes (Heroes – there is that word again).  In “Dance of the Forest” there is character named Demoke that was the tribal totem carver that passionately confronted his own frailty. Demoke inspired me to become a wood carver.

Soyinka is in part remembered for his mediation in the Biafran Civil War which resulted in his being imprisoned in solitary confinement for two years without ever being tried or convicted.  In his book We Must Depart at Dawn he tell a very self-depricating, funny story of the time he elaborately stole what he mistakenly believed was an ancient Yoruba artifact that had been looted.  He is a fearless spirit.

Some years ago Soyinka was interviewed on NPR on Tom Ashbrook’s  On Point.  I was able to call in and ask Mr. Soyinka a question about Dance of the Forest and managed to get a nice baritone chuckle out of him.  It is one of my small but treasured personal achievements.


Home geography

I think we all have a home geography, a place where our soul relaxes. Amahia captures it in her comment about breaking out of the woods and onto the plains. Leaving the trees behind was a relief. My husband grew up by the Atlantic ocean, and no where says peace for him like the seaside. Growing up in northern California, it was a short drive to the beach, and a longer drive to the mountains. But it is the mountains that are my home space.

I have no way of knowing if we have geographical DNA. I do think our sense of space has a lot to do with where (physically) our sense of self developed. Place can be a powerful shaper of self and metaphor for individuation. I often (always?) went to the beach with other people, but I spent time alone in the mountains. 

That said, it is those places in the mountains where a meadow meets the trees that my soul really soars. It may indeed be fundamental human nature to want the spot where we leave the confusion behind and come out into the open. Don’t all the bad things in fairy tales take place in the woods?

The horse narrates

The Horse Narrates

Wild horses were a topic of conversation at my July wedding in California.  There were Nevadans in attendance—how could wild horses not come up?  Nothing decisive was said; our discussion settled nothing.  Such is the complicated situation for the wild horse.  The horses galloped across our conversation but we didn’t feel confident portraying them as protagonists, victims or villains.

Our ambivalence comes, in part, from not knowing when the story should start or end: are wild horses symbols of a native and free American past?  Or, are wild horses pests, economically and ecologically invasive creatures that must be managed?  Or, are they continental natives, come home after a long absence?  As a historian, I’m interested in how we tell the story.  Historical narratives change over time and it depends when we begin and end the story.


Let’s examine a few snapshots through time to illustrate.

One:  About 18 million years ago, Moropus ranged (though slowly as it was more sloth-like) across the American West.  Fossils have been found in California, Nevada and western Nebraska.  Moropus is an early type of horse from the Miocene.  By the Pleistocene,  horse ancestors that evolved in the Americas had long emigrated off the continent (across the Bering Strait) or died out.  None of the horse varieties survived beyond the Pleistocene, which ended about 12,000 years ago (commonly called the Ice Age).  Its possible that early human entrants to the Americas hunted these horses and, along with climate change, contributed to their extinction.  Because the stunning early art found in European caves depicts horses, we have come to think of horses as having Eurasian origins.

Two:  In the early 1500s Spanish Conquistadores arrive to the Americas on boats.  They brought domesticated horses to help them move swiftly and conquer.  Though the horse once evolved in the Americas, it was now a visitor in a strange land.  The Aztecs looked in awe at these large mammals.  Horses became animals of transport and labor across the Americas, moving Europeans and Indians alike.

Three:  Escaped, traded and purchased horses made their way across North America.  By the 1600s, horses had come to the plains and they were invaluable.  Around 1800, the Called Out People (commonly called the Cheyenne) were consumed with expansion.  They had moved south and eastward onto the Great Plains—one of the most significant grasslands of the world.  They settled on the Front Range in places that we now call Colorado and Kansas.  Before horses, few natives lived on the high plains—they ventured into them for hunting bison, but retreated to the edges where the resources were more bountiful and life was gentler.  The coming of horses made hunting bison much easier, resulting in turf wars between tribes as they vied for a share of the market and pushed deeper into the plains from all directions.

Four:  The Sioux of the late 1800s would become the icon of the American Indian.  If asked to conjure an image of a Indian, the average person will see a plainsman in glorious headdress, astride a horse.  Majestic, like Crazy Horse.  Similar to the Cheyenne, Sioux tribes changed their way of life because of the horse.  They had immigrated from northern forests onto the plains in order to take advantage of the horse’s potential—freed of the ground, as one put it.  The Sioux (Ogallala among them) ruled the plains at the moment when their backyards were discovered by treasure hunters and railroads—calling it wilderness.  Those images of Frederick Remington, of men atop equestrians, seem immortal; as if they had always been and always would be (even if only in the spirit of the land).

Five:   The Ghost Dance.  It was a desperately optimistic pan-Indian attempt to return power and balance to native peoples.  Begun in Nevada, it spread to the plains by the end of the 19th century.  Meanwhile, the U.S Cavalry approached….

Six: On horseback, the military arrived to push, pull and cajole the tribes to cede land and limit movement by horse (decimating bison was one tactic used to undermine tribes).  The 1887 Dawes Act created reservations—the antithesis of nomadic horse tribes.  Following the military were American and European immigrants coming with horses. They imagined the land undiscovered and settled to work it with horse-drawn plows.  By the 1910s, wheat was prevalent, the bison were nearly extinct, native populations were at their nadir, and 23 million horses were harnessed.

Seven:  In the 1950s, the most significant change on American farms was the purchase of a tractor.  Tractors had a lot of  “horsepower” and replaced the labor of horses in the field, just as automobiles had done on roads.  Horse populations plummeted (c. 4.5 million) as agriculture mechanized, switching the energy source from solar/grass-fed horses to fossil/oil-fed equipment.  Many horses became dog food.

Eight:  At the same time in the 1950s—in high desert, non-agricultural regions like Nevada—wild horses, sometimes with genes traceable to conquistadores, were spreading like wildfire.  The horses competed for the resources of the public range (used by lease-paying sheepherders and cattlemen) and the federal government rounded them up for sale as dog food meat.  The 1950s were also the origin of a organized sentimentalism to prevent cruelty and to save and protect wild horses.  (More on this in a later post).

Nine:  In 2013 horsemeat scandals rocked the international airwaves and, in Iowa, a plan to reopen the first slaughterhouse in US for horses is proposed.  The public dissented and the proposal has been quickly rescinded.  Today, Americans love the horse, seeing it as a pet as well as a connection to our past; hobbyhorses outnumber workhorses (totaling c. 9million) which outnumber the wild horses (c. 40,000).

July: Over the weekend I finally had a chance to visit the gallery and walk amidst Scott and Margaret’s exhibits.  The horses drew me into their band.  I felt herded by the Cloud–like horse (the stallion of the Arrowhead Mountains made famous by documentarian Ginger Kathrens) into the middle as the horses danced around me.  Horses are very social creatures.  We’ve bred them that way.  Wild horses are no different, except that they have reestablished their native independence and don’t see humans as the center of their world.

By themselves, each of these snapshots is like one frame of a running horse.  Frozen in time.  Like Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse, I wonder, if we would see the story (of the horse and us) differently as we begin to include more snapshots?   (See my earlier post with a video of the galloping horse).

Round Up

I return to my point about narrative.  If we go back millions of years, we see a horse that is endemic, repopulates, and belongs in the wild (like the grizzly) and has finally returned there with the aid (even if inadvertent) of humans.  If we start the story in the 1500s, we can imagine the horse as an invasive ungulate, as a soldier in the war against Indians.  From the perspective of Sitting Bull, the story changes dramatically for the better when the horse enters, and with the decline of the horse comes the decline of plains peoples.  For a twentieth century animal activist, the story begins with greedy ranchers, BLM helicopters and slaughter, and the story ends with the adoption and taming of mustangs.  The facts and trajectory of each story is different.  I appreciate how standing in the middle of the Scott’s horses, I had a chance to think of my story, their story and our story.