Not much changes along the route I walk in the morning down the hill, across the creek bridge, and up hill again to the Tom's Convenience/McDonalds up against Interstate 83, for coffee and reading what passes for a newspaper (90% ads and crime reports, ending on the editorial page with professional and local reactionaries roiling their stewpot of anger/misinformation). At one end of the bridge this morning, a township truck was parked and someone was busily cutting up a tree which had fallen across the Jersey barrier during the short but fierce windstorm a few days ago. At the other end of the bridge, a midsize tree that has been dead for years is still standing despite those winds. Its bark is peeling off in places; in others lichen has made its home on blackened branches. Nature is very slowly doing the same task here as the chainsaw nearby, profligate with time but relentlessly efficient nonetheless. Sooner or much later, fate will deliver all us lifeforms to the fungi, insects and all the other never-tiring agents of decay and transformation.
While animals in nature communicate with a compact vocabulary of sounds and much more extensive use of scent and body language, we have gone far in the direction of abstract reasoning. Too far? Science fiction has long conveyed the dread of a future in which machines have been made human, but we're close to making ourselves unnatural and machine-like. The technologies of communication have us compulsively fingering i-everything devices, but the medium has become, and replaced, the message: we're mostly not saying anything more profound than, "I'm here." (Heh, heh -- like bloggers).
Yesterday afternoon our cat Gilligan was relaxed and sprawled across my legs, as usual, half-looking in the opposite direction of the front window. Yet his ears perked up and his eyes widened in full alert just before he jumped up, executed a turn in midair, and landed in one hop on the bench below the window. His arch nemesis, the thieving squirrel who eats most of the birds' seed block hanging from the holly, was there. Gilligan couldn't have seen him on the ground outside before landing on the bench, but he knew that grey rascal was there, threatening his bird-watching on his own territory. That is communication that we in all our intellectual glory do not understand.
(True story:) A young chimp spotted a piece of fruit and was about to get excited when he spied an adult alpha male approaching. The youngster seemed to consider things for a moment, and realizing the big bruiser would slap him away and seize the fruit, he repressed his natural reaction and casually pretended nothing was going on. The alpha male passed by, and went out of sight behind a tree. Feeling that he carried the ruse off, our little friend reached for the fruit, but the older chimp had sensed something was up and was peering around the tree to see what it was. Of course he charged back, chased the other off and got the food anyway. You don't get to be, and stay, alpha ape unless you have sharp observation and data-processing skills to correctly read the signs around you.
Compare the reasoning abilities and situational awareness of these primates with people who are victims of frauds, scams, cults and uncritical faith in abstract value systems. They wouldn't last a day in the zoo or the jungle -- no use of, or integration into, nature's superb communications web.
Technology is wondrous magic, but magic can be benign or malignant. It comes at us like a tornado, and without enough experience or understandable information, how can we tell what is a golden future and what is a gilded cage?
The old Zen master had one message: Pay attention! And we should all be careful with our endless words: nature will have the last one.
"Having the gift of thinking, we manage to misuse our native gifts and to do mischief that has nothing to do with the welfare of life and go astray. We think not in terms of work that needs to be done for life, but in terms of how we can serve our separate self..."
--Charlotte Beck, Everyday Zen