Reinventing Who We Are: Human Beings and Our Place in the World
Here are some things that my daughter has taught me so far during this school year: ants never sleep; flamingos turn from white to pink because of the beta carotene content of the shrimp that make up most of their diet; the songs of whales are as structured, as lyrical, as complex as a piece of chamber music; the bumblebee bat, smallest of its species, weighs less than a single penny; the spider plant sitting covered in dust on our kitchen table eats the warm yellow sunlight that spills through the window over its leaves. All around us, in other words, the natural universe is thick with miracle and intrigue.

Of all the wonders that exist, though, the human brain – capable of inventing the wheel and the cloud chamber, the astrolabe and the harpsichord – must surely be one of the most remarkable. Try to imagine something else subtle enough to devise symphonies and separate sub-atomic particles. If (as quantum physics and religion tend to suggest) everything that exists is not just some spontaneous combustion of chance and happenstance, and there is in fact some all-encompassing intelligence underlying the workings of the universe, the human consciousness surely must be one of its more elegant manifestations.

However, at this time and place in the development of our species, it seems we’re putting our minds to pretty shabby use. A case in point: the debates leading up to the recent federal election. As most us know, the world we live in is fast approaching the brink of ecological collapse. Toxic air and fouled water; contaminated food supplies; depleted ozone and global warming; famine, war and disease: go ahead and put your money on which of the riders of the apocalypse will be the first to come thundering overhead. Oblivious to these hoof beats, though, our political leaders were content to chatter on about relatively minor issues of public policy and fiscal accountability, and we were pretty content to let them. Nary a word was said about how we are going to maintain our water supplies or cut back on our greenhouse gas emissions. By media consensus, the Green Party – the only political party to approach vital environmental issues with any degree of determination – was barred from the televised national debates, and effectively elbowed out the public spotlight. This happened with little public outcry. At the end of the election day, we voted into power a conservative minority government that will almost certainly further the corporate agenda of globalization and resource privatization. With the iceberg looming off our starboard prow, we were content to let our leaders quibble over how best to balance the Titanic’s books, and which colours would most suitable for re-upholstering the deck chairs.

Napoleon famously dismissed the English as “une nation de boutiquiers”. In a sense, it seems that all of us have become a nation, a species, of shopkeepers. Or perhaps this is too optimistic. To be a successful shopkeeper requires some pragmatism and a modicum of planning for future survival. It requires, too, integrity and a commitment to the community. To be honest, we in the western world are more like the anonymous and bored minimum wage employees of a corporate shopping mall. At best, we are a drab and sorry species of financial analysts and marketing shills, eager to flog our souls and our resources to the highest bidder.

Nor was the environment the only important issue to be ignored. Throughout the campaign, there was a lot of glib and patronizing gibberish about gun control and getting tough on crime (the rate of which has incidentally been decreasing every decade since the 1950s), but little was said about such important issues as Canada’s role on the world stage, or public policy with respect to the ethical implications of scientific research – issues that have a direct bearing on the likelihood of our survival as a nation and as a species. Nor, of course, was there much discussion about increased funding for the arts, or improved access to post-secondary education – two of the ways in which we might expand our dwindling souls and sharpen our ever-diminishing vision.

It seems to me the loss of the wild places outside of ourselves is directly attributable to the loss of greatness inside of our own skulls. If the voices coming out of the last election are a true indication of our concerns, then it is clear that we are no longer willing to think big, or to open ourselves to inspiration. For every melting ice shelf and every hectare of devastated rainforest, there is a corresponding loss of some fragile archipelago of human imagination, some preserve of wonder within us. Perhaps we are hypnotized by horror or overwhelmed by helplessness. Maybe we’re just lazy and greedy. Whatever the case, we apparently can no longer see beyond the steering wheels of our Ford Explorers, or plan anything beyond the time it takes to microwave our frozen dinners. We are simply unable to see the enormous problems that are surrounding us, never mind making any real progress on finding a solution to them.

An argument could be made, of course, that this ignorance and narrowness of vision is nothing new; the ways of human beings have always been thus. The average medieval villager, exhausted from the labours of the day, probably had very little inclination to ponder the design of the constellations or to wonder about the steady stream of sparks pouring upward from the alchemist’s chimney. It has always been a relatively small portion of the species that has been able to see past the day-to-day realities.

The difference, though, between this generation and those of the past is the extent to which nearly all of us have become profoundly cut off from the realities of the natural world. We eat anonymous, prepackaged foods that travel to us from hundreds or thousands of miles away, and we know little and care less about the conditions under which they were produced. We spend our leisure hours cocooned inside temperature-controlled homes, watching Friends reruns, rarely even bothering anymore to step into the darkness of our own backyards to gaze up into the night sky or listen to the scraping and singing of insects. Superior as we may feel to the peasants of old, their connection to the world beyond themselves would at least have given them the ability to understand that something is going very, very wrong with the patterns of the world.

In his essay “The End of the Wild”, ethnobotanist Wade Davis argues that, at this point in the development of humanity, “[a]ll memory is convulsed in an upheaval of violence. There is a fire burning over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom” (231). He goes on to assert that “[q]uelling this flame and reinventing the poetry of diversity is the most important challenge of our time” (231). The survival of our planet requires that we use all of the gifts of our rich human consciousness in order to devise and create a better and more sustainable mode of existence. Being all we can be must become more than a catchy military recruitment slogan. We need to snap out of our global-corporate approved magical thinking, and realize that the way we live is simply not feasible, not conscionable. We must feel with our physical bodies a sense of connectedness to the foods we eat, the air we breathe, the woods we walk through, the waters we swim in. We must learn to be less childish, and more child-like. We must open our eyes and sharpen our sense of wonder. Above all, we need to wake up to our own true natures, to understand that we are far more than simply producers and consumers living our lives in some vast department store. We are, in fact, walking miracles, alive in a universe seething with delight. We alone, out of all creation, have the power to change the destiny of worlds. And with that power comes the breathtaking responsibility of expecting more from ourselves.

Davis, Wade. The Clouded Leopard: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 1998.


The results of the fiction category of the contest are not yet available, but watch the Voice for the announcement, coming soon. Bill Pollett won the Non-Fiction category of the contest, for the above story: Reinventing Who We Are. The judges also elected to award two honourable mentions awarded to Corrina Cockins for Where Have My Blue Skies Gone?, and Sandra Livingston for Undone. The Voice would like to thank the judges of the non-fiction category, AU tutors Karen Davison, Lara Apps, and Veronica Baig.