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Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world.
On Daniel Quinn and inquiry as a catalyst for transformation and regeneration.
Note: This is my last edition for the Regeneration Weekly. I’m honored this publication enabled me to write through my curiosities, and I look forward to watching how it continues to grow and evolve. In the coming weeks, you’ll hear from my colleague, Sara Yonker, and the many smart and talented voices of Grassroots Carbon to learn about regenerative grazing, soil carbon quantification, the voluntary carbon market, and more. I’ll eagerly await each piece every week.
“TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.”
And so begins one of my favorite books of all time, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, a thought-provoking narrative of our shared assumptions about the world and the wide-ranging implications of our cultural “stories.”
In the role of a wise mentor, Ishmael, a gorilla, imparts wisdom to his eager student, the narrator, inviting introspection. He shares, “Mother Culture, whose voice has been in your ear since the day of your birth, has given you an explanation of how things came to be this way. You know it well; everyone in your culture knows it well…As we make our journey here, we’re going to be reexamining key pieces of that mosaic…And when we’re finished, you’ll have an entirely new perception of the world and of all that’s happened here.”
Ishmael challenges the progressive fragmentation of our culture that began with the agricultural revolution and has led to the fragmentation of thought that has marked the last ten thousand years of human civilization.
According to Ishmael, and as I’ve written about before, our current social and environmental problems are rooted in our disconnection from nature and the belief that it’s our job to dominate nature and make it subservient to our will. He explains the myth that evolution ended with humans and the dire consequences of perceiving ourselves as “outlaws” with permission to live outside the laws of nature.
“Everyone in your culture knows this. Man was born to turn the world into paradise, but tragically he was born flawed. And so his paradise has always been spoiled by stupidty, greed, destructiveness, and shortsightedness.”
And so begins the deep cultural inquiry between Ishmael and the narrator, us.
Ishamael poses to the narrator: “On the basis of my history, what subject would you say I was best qualified to teach?” Absent an answer, Ishmael replies, “My subject is ‘captivity.’”
He’s not referring to the bars of his cage but those of the world itself.
“Among the people of your culture, which want to destroy the world?” he asks. The narrator responds, “As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world.”
“And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world”
“Yes, that’s so.”
“Why don’t you stop?”
“Frankly, we don’t know how.”
“You’re captives of a civilization system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live.”
“Yes - that’s the way it seems.”
But do we know we’re captives of this myth? Are we destined to destroy the world and stay cogs within our own industrialized, factory farm?
“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.”
And here lies my point for this final post: no individual can change culture, yet culture can’t change without individual changes. With collective discernment and a new story, we can change.
“People can’t just give up a story. That’s what the kids tried to do in the sixties and seventies. They tried to stop living like Takers, but there was no other way for them to live. They failed because you can’t just stop being in a story, you have to have another story to be in.”
Ishmael nodded. “And if there is such a story, people should hear about it?”
“Yes, they should.”
“Do you think they want to hear about it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think you can start wanting something till you know it exists.”
There’s no one right way to free ourselves from the imprisonment of our cultural dysfunction; there’s no one right way to live.
But Ishmael challenges the belief that we are separate from nature and other species. By opening us to a different dialogue of our culture, it creates an opening for us to reach forward, change, and start new stories that are more peaceful and harmonious with the rest of the world.
We’re all teachers; we’re all pupils, and I daresay most of us have an earnest desire to collectively work to protect, regenerate, and save the world.
May we feel called to rethink our position in nature’s web and construct new stories for the betterment of humanity and all life on Earth.
It’s been a pleasure sharing space with you at The Regeneration. Please stay in touch and share how you’re creating a new story within yourself and your community.
Until we meet again,
Quotes to ponder:
“We live in what we perceive to be a broken land—fires ravage our western boundaries, acid rains water our failing crops, and our climate is trying to kick us out—but it is our relationship that is broken and relationships are easy to fix. They require humility, acknowledgement, openness, and shared language. Really, if they require anything of us at all, they require us to stop talking and to start listening—listening for the hope that they have stored deep within their ageless marrow, deep below the punishing reach of the plow and the spade, deep below the place where technology’s roots can reach, but shallow enough for photosynthetic processes to penetrate. Yes, grass can do that.”
― Daniel Firth Griffith, Wild Like Flowers
“Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”
― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
“You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder. It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you.”
“A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
― Mary Oliver
“We forget, in a world completely transformed by man, that what we’re looking at is not necessarily the environment wildlife prefer, but the depleted remnant that wildlife is having to cope with: what it has is not necessarily what it wants.”
― Isabella Tree, Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm
“If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”
― Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability
“It is not half so important to know as to feel”
― Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder
“We all begin the process before we are ready, before we are strong enough, before we know enough; we begin a dialogue with thoughts and feelings that both tickle and thunder within us. We respond before we know how to speak the language, before we know all the answers, and before we know exactly to whom we are speaking.”
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves
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