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I don’t know where I’m going…

March 27, 2012

After sleeping on it, dreaming about it, and further reflecting on it, I realized that my post yesterday is limited. I like the metaphors I came up with, and they do have a certain emotional resonance to them. But reality was far more nuanced.

Still, I think I might have had to write the post the way I did to arrive at a deeper understanding.

A long time ago, I tried to understand everything at once. I thought there were simple answers to simple questions, and I was impatient with complexity. I thought I was looking for answers, but really? I was looking for people to blame. “I didn’t do anything wrong! These bad things happened because bad people hurt me! It’s not my fault!” There are instances where those statements are true, in a certain sense. They can be comforting in the short term. But in the long term, they are a lot less useful. Because if I truly had no power, was not an actor or agent — then next time similar circumstances arise, I also don’t have any way of affecting the outcome. Events are tidal waves, sweeping me along like driftwood.

So nowadays I evaluate past events differently. At first pass, I am very critical and unforgiving of my own role in whatever transpired. I look at what happened to me, but I also try to situate it in a larger perspective, perhaps connecting it to familial patterns of behavior. I know from reading family histories, written not just by biographers, but also by psychologists, that people often unconsciously and unknowingly repeat patterns of behavior, generation after generation. For instance, I just finished reading Candice Millard’s (brilliant) book, The River of Doubt: Theodore  Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, and although the book is actually about an exploratory adventure in uncharted Amazonia, taken by TR, his son Kermit, and various others, Millard details how Kermit’s life both during and after the trip derailed in a way that eerily paralleled the life of his uncle, Elliott Roosevelt (TR’s younger brother, and father of Eleanor Roosevelt), who died when Kermit was a child. There is so much misery and dysfunction in my family of origin; I don’t want to inadvertently repeat those patterns by refusing to hold myself accountable.

So my first pass is intentionally rigorous. But second and third passes work at developing a fuller understanding. And during this phase, I usually soften my original assessment. I see the places where only hindsight tells me that my course of action would not have worked. Or my course of action did work the way I originally envisioned, but it turned out that I needed a different framework, so I was still disappointed.

And that is what happened with the subject of my previous post. I mentioned five specific times that I had faced this kind of choice [now; 2003; 1997; 1991; 1984], but there were also other times that I sought something similar. This has in fact been a running theme in my life. And I now believe that the real problem I’ve had all along is that my framework was all wrong. I kept thinking that there was one path, well-defined by other people, and all I had to do was step on to it and follow it. That is the approach I used in 1984, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2004.

There is no path. There is no job or career or hobby or avocation that I have been able to discover in 28 years of looking that encompasses everything that turns out to be important to me. I have gleaned bits and pieces from all sorts of places. I’m now considering another ‘place’ that will afford me more knowledge. But this time, unlike all the other times, I know that this step is not my entire path. I’m not ever going to be just one thing. So I can’t reduce all this to any one of the following statements:

  • “I’m a botanist”,
  • “I’m an ecologist”,
  • “I work in an herbarium”,
  • “I’m a botanical illustrator”,
  • “I’m a naturalist”,
  • “I’m a biogeographer”,
  • “I’m a conservation biologist”,
  • “I’m a landscape ecologist”,
  • “I’m an environmental scientist”,
  • “I’m a deep ecologist”,
  • “I’m a science writer”,
  • And the new one – “I’m a gardener”.

I was never able to get a job working in an herbarium (although I applied for two), but I think I can legitimately claim all of the others, mostly unpaid or volunteer or as a student, but some were (parts of) paid jobs. For any one of these, my background is never quite conventional or the expected route. I have often expected to find kindred spirits with these people, and yet I often do not. Perhaps because the gaps in my knowledge occur in different places than the gaps in the knowledge of my fellow coworkers, students, volunteers, etc. Perhaps also because I feel part plant, part fungi, part animal, part soil, part rock, part river, part weather. I don’t automatically think humans are right about everything. I definitely don’t think that what the world needs is humans ‘controlling’ (or seeking to control) more things. I’ve eliminated personal relationships that were controlling, once I determined that they could not be renegotiated. I think conflict and disagreement are important to keeping relationships dynamic and healthy, but lopsided power dynamics never seem to work out well for anyone. And it is definitely a lopsided power dynamic when one assumes that humans can and should do whatever they want, no matter how dire the results, because we can. And/or because “God gave us permission (in the Bible).”

Deities or supernatural entities that tell you exactly what you want to hear? That justify behaving badly, and never hold you (or people like you) accountable? Are not beings I want anything to do with.

My gods don’t give me answers. They ask me questions, and I have to search out the answers myself. I have to decide what I can live with, and what I want to be part of. This process is ongoing.

28 years ago I asked the universe how I could contribute something worthwhile to the world. I’ve found the sphere, but what effect am I having? What can I even say that I have done, that matters? I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know. I have a deep affinity for the land I live on now. At small scales, that is where our apartment is situated, our neighborhood, and the towns nearby. At progressively larger scales, that is our watershed (Gunpowder-Patapsco Rivers), northern Baltimore County, Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay region, the mid-Atlantic coast, and the eastern United States.

I don’t want to heal human beings, with or without talking to spirits (shaman). I don’t want to radio-tag, collar, otherwise interfere with, or worst yet, kill and dissect beings, all to advance human scientific knowledge (biologist, ecologist, lab technician).

I do want to understand how the world works, to the best of my limited abilities. I do want relationships that are respectful, supportive, and loving. I do want partnerships of peers. I’d like to help other human beings learn to care about where they live, and who their (mostly nonhuman) neighbors are. I would like to discover or co-create ways of partnering with (some of) those neighbors that don’t follow old patterns of objectification or instrumentality.  I would like to write about this entire process, as it unfolds. I would like to get feedback, and maybe find others doing similar things.

It has occurred to me that there might be a book in this. But how would I describe myself and my background so that someone who doesn’t know me might want to read it? What things can I say I’ve done well? Where is the continuity?

I feel like I’m an apprentice for a profession with no name. There are no traditions, so no one inherently respects whatever it is that I’m trying to do. I don’t know how to explain it, because I don’t really know what I’m doing. If there are ‘higher’ purposes, I have not yet discovered them. What can I do with any of this?

And yet, whatever-this-is beats in my blood and courses through my dreams. I’m finally on the threshold of becoming who I need to be. Maybe I’m on the verge of a phase transition, and something will make sense afterwards. And maybe not. I guess all that’s left is to jump off the cliff, and find out by doing.

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