Reflections on Wisdom, and the Log from the Sea of Cortez


Wisdom comes from connecting.  In order to connect, we first have to see what there is around us, what past lessons apply, and to know what matters, in this place, at this time.

Only the open mindedJohn Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez tells the tale of a marine survey expedition to the Gulf of California on the eve of the Second World War.  The marine biologist Ed Ricketts, better known as ‘Doc’ in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, leads the team.  Up until his recent renaissance as a greatly underestimated scientist, Ricketts was much vilified by those who prefer a narrower method because he refused to specialise, just as Darwin on the Beagle refused to, connecting biological diversity with local history, community, and geology.  Darwin and Rickett’s shared approach was to focus on understanding the changing patterns and connections of particular places, rather than what Steinbeck refers to with disdain as ‘exact and narrow thinking’.  Their declared intention was to go into the Gulf without limits to their curiosity, sea-of-cortez.jpgto avoid at all costs the trait of specialists who see nothing they didn’t come to see.

This sort of approach has always struck a nerve with me. Some of us were privileged from a young age to trail on the heels of hunters, stockmen, or woodsmen.  The best of these were always generalists who could comment on history, soil, animal habits, as well as practice.  You can learn a lot by having eyes opened to the patterns they saw and upon which they continually acted.  F David Peat gave an excellent illustration of this in his Blackfoot Physics.  Young tribesmen ‘come to know’ not by explicit lessons learned in a classroom, but by living within a place, following on the heels of someone already initiated.

You learn at these heels that land is linked to people and the past, and that it is a complex, more dynamic-organic that predictable-machine.  To the people steeped in landscape, a hill country paddock or a forest stand was never a uniform thing from end to end, best represented by statistical averages.  They continually change with the actions, interactions, and local conditions of soil, climate, animals, vegetation, and people.

Sea of Cortez boat

Land and Seascapes of the Sea of Cortez

I never felt I ‘knew’ these places as well as those who had spent time living within the land to which they, in many senses, intimately belonged.  It does need time to become intimate with land; it needs time to ponder and remember and to connect the dots of this with that, so that you appreciate that if there are these particular conditions, then this contingent thing is likely to follow, over there, or some time in the future.  You cannot teach many of those patterns but through experience.  Complexity, contingency, conditionality, context and connection are not something you understand through instruction alone, just as riding a horse or raising a child are not classroom subjects.  Intimacy also needs a mind that does not see only one thing.  You could say it is a view of land that is in essence more poetic than technocratic, where meaning and acting go far beyond measurable things.

The technocrats will focus and measure a narrow range of things; one or two dots, which they are prone to treat as newly discovered laws, reliably accurate and precise.  That delusion would be laughed at by those often more humble people who could quickly point out what conditions make those apparently regular numbers a charade.  Being trained as a technocrat, I like to think that they are useful, but I’ve long since realised that they can create a dog’s breakfast if they don’t connect with the deeper ‘knowing’ of those who spend time on the land.  If you’re a technocrat, be one not obsessed with numbers, broaden your horizons, try to develop at least some intimacy so you can stop pretending to have some mythical ‘objectivity’, and learn to ask a few questions rather than just provide answers.

Am I being too harsh on the narrower technocrats?  We’ve had our obsession with narrowness over the last few decades.  The arch-technocrats in Treasury – and a few politicians who usually failed in land management – thought that better management came from focusing on one or two things.  It didn’t matter whether it was those most complex of things – like people or land – defining them as dollars, or production units would do the trick. Well, nice theory, but you actually do at least three things that make management worse.

People I have never seen - SteinbeckThe first is a failure to see opportunities under your very nose in the belief that having more than one value will inevitably involve a trade-off, a lose-lose – like clean water and farm production, profit and biodiversity, or community and economy.  Focus too much and too narrowly, and you don’t see where all such things can co-exist; that we can create landscapes where we can combine functions and build mutual values.  A case in point is a New Zealand forestry company that actually had a valuable mushroom present under some stands.  When the stands were due to be felled, the highly valuable mushrooms were too much for the technocratic decision maker.  The stand was felled because it was in the cutting programme.  They could have had both but for the focus on the ‘efficiency’ of one.

The second effect is to fail to see consequences, even those that come back to bite us.  You never do one thing.  The old shepherd or woodsman who can better connect and therefore judge, might shake his head at some action, but the technocrat has faith in the numbers and fixed mechanisms – the effects of variations of A on B and never mind the rest of the alphabet – apparently objective and certain.  Pick any story you want; the business that fails because it treats its people poorly in pursuit of output or cost reduction for profit; the farm that removes shelter (a waste of ‘effective’ farmland) before the fatal storm; the fisherman and logger that continually overexploit.

Sea of Cortez Dolphins

Aristotle understood this.  He considered mere fact (‘knowing what’ – episteme) and technology (‘knowing how’ – techne) inferior to his ‘queen of the intellectual virtues’ practical wisdom (‘knowing how to act in this particular context’ – phronesis).  For that judgment you need more than mere facts and know how, you need to appreciate what is ‘good’ and have an intimacy with the complexity and meaning of place and a time.

In our technocratic age we give the kudos and the power to the quantitative technocrats of science, commerce and technology, who often have no intimacy with complexity, and have never considered what is ‘good’.  The numbers, they presume, tell them that.  So utility trumps both virtue and wisdom.

The proponents of science and technology have this overbearing belief that analysis and deduction is superior to synthesis and induction; the latter, the gift of the arts and humanities.  Analysis and deduction can leave us swimming around within a goldfish bowl while deluding ourselves that we are learning more and more about the outside world; working on ‘Normal Science’ solving small puzzles put to us by the great mad visionaries who gave us this gift of an idea – ideas they got from Synthesis and Induction!!, and perhaps some intuition and the collective unconscious as well.   Synthesis and induction lead to new things; leaps of knowledge and understanding – New Paradigms Found!

The third effect of our obsession with narrowness and cutting things up is perhaps the most serious; we reduce the capacity to think of other options; to adapt and innovate in the face of uncertainty and inevitable change.  We reduce our resilience.  If you cannot think outside the box, then you’ll probably end up at some point being buried in it.  We see this with our environmental strategies, our economic strategies, our land management strategies.  We have given the world to the narrow tacticians and their corporate-minded breeding labs, and left few places for the visionaries, and the strategists, and heaven forbid the wise.

Which is why we do the world, and ourselves, Only connect - Forstera favour when we connect to complexity; when we put a little of ourselves into a place by nurturing and harvesting both ‘vert and venison’, by sitting and listening to the wind in the trees and how people ‘see’ and live within this microcosm, and by sharing stories and songs.  We connect to people and place, sense things beyond the boundaries of the box, connect to values we may not have realised existed, and, if blessed, grow wise.  “Only connect,” wrote E M Forster.  Though I never did finish Howard’s End.

Humpback whale Sea of Cortez

Humpback Whale – Sea of Cortez

Chris Perley
Thoughtscapes
4th February 2013

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy. 

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4 Responses to Reflections on Wisdom, and the Log from the Sea of Cortez

  1. Chris Phillips says:

    Great article. Resonated with me as much as your writings have in the past. Thanks for articulating what some of us would like to say.

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  2. Don Miller says:

    Its taken almost 70 years to reach this point, but I whole heartedly agree with you – and with Aristotle. Working on environmental restoration, in one way or another, in over ten countries has made me understand how shortsighted most of man’s decisions have been. Very little wisdom has been apparent to me except on one small island in Vanuatu where serendipity gave a solution to their soil erosion problems – they ran with it, and several hundred years later still do.. Of course the Chatham Islands had things sorted too, until a European sailing ship, along with the Ngati Mtunga and Ngati Tama invaders, destroyed their sustainable culture. A pity Jared Diamond didn’t feature them.

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  3. Pingback: Rebuilding our Relationship with Land – And the Emerging World View | Chris Perley's Blog

  4. cjkperley says:

    Reblogged this on Chris Perley's Blog and commented:

    Reblogging because of a conversation with a High School teacher at Lake Karapiro today, recovering from a couple of Waka Ama races. We talked of the rise of the administrative and mechanical minds destroying effectiveness in pursuit of various charades of accountability and monocultural thinking. And how the magic is in a culture that sees through many eyes, and feels. The things they have somehow determined are no longer part of the pantheon of what is wise. Poor deluded they.

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