I was introduced to the concept of systems thinking during my freshman year of college, by a a teacher, Ned Houston, who received a round of astonished applause at the end of a fiery lecture about ecology and humanity (in a class called “Humans & the Environment). Systems thinking, feedback loops, and connectivity, were all ideas that I knew existed, but hadn’t had the language to describe. I knew these loops and connections were real; I had seen them in action. To me, even now, several years later, systems thinking remains one of the most beautiful ways of interacting with and understanding ecology and humanity. Systems in nature are non-linear and so interwoven and interconnected and interdependent, it’s almost unbearable to consider them in the face of the destruction of our land. Nothing we do happens in a vacuum. Everything has an impact. We get to choose whether it is constructive, or not.
In June and July, I’ll be attending a six week intensive on ecoliteracy. Ecoliteracy: a wonderful word that, according to spellcheck, doesn’t exist, and otherwise causes some people to raise an eyebrow (“Uh, another one of those hippy-dippy ideas that don’t really mean anything.” Wrong! It means so much! Everything, perhaps…). In preparation, I’ve been rereading a book that I first read during college: Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. This book, which is part of the Bioneers Series, is a collection of essays by everyone from Wendell Berry and Alice Waters, to Donella Meadows (author of Thinking in Systems: A Primer) and Fritjof Capra. Apart from the fact that apparently everyone who contributed had to have a funky name, it’s a tome of enormous depth and wonder. What is ecoliteracy? To echo Fritjof Capra, when we design the human aspects of a landscape: our homes, our farms, our neighbourhoods, cities, etc., nothing brings us closer to true sustainability than mirroring natural ecosystems. Ecoliteracy means understanding these systems, “reading” nature, observing ecosystems in action, understanding the limits of our environment, and cultivating a sense of place. In terms of design, beauty in nature is twice beauty: there is what meets the eye, and there is what lies below (sometimes literally, the details and purpose we look hardest at to see)—what lies below is a perfect, intelligent (non-linear, and therefor harder for us humans to grasp) system. A system we can learn so much from. A system that inherently has form, pattern, and meaning.
What I see all around me (in the news, on farms, in city planning) is a tendency to forget that humans are part of this non-linear system, too. When we think linearly, as we might tend to, we might think in traditional economic terms: where input and growth are the only way forward. The past is behind us, the future unknown, but the end goal clearly mapped, though not often expressed so bluntly: growth until nothing can grown any more. But nature doesn’t underwrite this way of life. Nothing ends without becoming something else. No thing appears out of thin air. Every human being, no matter what their path, will eventually become compost, nourishing soil microorganisms and all the plants and animals that thrive in their midst.
On farms, cyclical thinking has many names: organic farming, sustainable agriculture, biodynamics. What all of it means is that the farm is an organism. The farmer stay on the land, committed to the cycles before and after him and/or her—they’re just another part of the cycle. Wendell Berry says is beautifully in his poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. Here’s an excerpt:
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
I’ve been inspired too, lately, by the work of Ben Falk, and his design firm, Whole Systems Design. If you have a moment, take a look at his videos. Ghandi’s words, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” have hovered close to me for many years now. Falk expresses this same sentiment from an ecological perspective: like many of us, he began his journey into agriculture, sustainable design, and a reduced carbon footprint by committing to make a smaller impact on the planet. Now, some years later, he’s convinced that making as big an impact as possible is the right path. That is, planting and growing food in a renewable way, teaching lots of people about it, creating sustainable landscapes for businesses, colleges, and private clients, and above all, really, thoroughly walking the walk. And celebrating all of it. Being big, joyous, and outspoke. I’m inspired by the minutely detailed systems that bring a dynamic, natural flow to his farm. I love that he heats his greenhouse with hot water warmed up in coils of pipe inside a giant compost heap. I love that his farm is brimming with edibles, from turnips by the woodpile, to raspberry vines leaning heavily into pathways. Every bit of space is used for food and beauty. Isn’t that cool? And doesn’t it makes so much sense?
The language of nature is accessible to everyone. We can’t escape it (and why would we want to?), so we may as well learn to speak it. What an endlessly astonishing place, this world. xo
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
—Mary Oliver, The Summer Day