The Wisdom of Intimacy


I’m reposting this old post The Wisdom of Intimacy because I am working on something about the shifting of perspective from one place to another.  We move from the intimacy of the field to the office and make our decisions there.  We presume objectivity.  We put more weight on the number than the shifting patterns; on the measured noun not the verbs.  We simplify the complexity and discard so much of what was there, in order to be – as we were taught – ‘professional’.  Numbers that stay the same are accorded some mythical status over qualities that fly about the room.  So, of course, we ignore the latter.

Why am I so sensitive to this point?  I grew up on land, loving land.  As a child my brother Andrew and I would be gone, making mischief with an Agee jar and wolf spiders in the woodland duff, chasing eels amongst the rocks.  Patterns were everywhere.  From a windy knob to a boggy hollow, to the smell of old pine and wariness of the bloody dive-bombing magpies in spring.  Patterns when you look at where the stock move, and when.  Patterns in mustering and our quiet unconsidered admiration for a man working seven dogs and knowing exactly what he is doing because he feels all the patterns.  I once had an argument when someone who felt that ‘knowing’ was about the office, and I remembered an old forester referring to the “slipper foresters”, who don’t need boots to walk the land between the coffee pot and the computer.

I’m sensitive because the loss of the use of legs highlights the point. What is it to know?

And after years of studying the sciences, botany, zoology and forest ecology and then more in the field, I ‘got it’ one day.  I got forest ecology.  I got that it wasn’t the stratification of indigenous animal and vegetation association over 1000s of hectares that mattered.  It wasn’t collecting all the stats from across the transect lines trudged over ridges and gullies and aspects, and then putting them into a melting pot – a mince maker – to come up with various quanta.  It was the maps of change with all their interlaced and blurry lines; resolutions down to fractal pixels that you have to choose for the place you are within.

What mattered was that everything changed from one world to the next within literally a few metres.  Here in this place the combinations and associations were this, and these particular histories and variables made it what it was.  Shift to another place and it was another set.  Shifting mosaics in time.  Dynamic and complex.  Change in time and place, one minute to the next, one metre.

It was brilliant, awe-inspiring.  It was like watching a beautiful dance, a murmuration.

And all our models tended to simplify these complexities.  Turn the dance into a march.  And then get things wrong where we used models as guide-dogs and not just as guides to those who retain the intimacy with place.  I believe in the guidance (not the brain-in-neutral follower of guide-dog) of simple models, so you can know that here – where this particular history and set of key variables are different than the model assumptions – you can use your own judgment.  The model does not apply, the accuracy is without context, and the precision is fallacious.  With simple models at least you can know the assumptions intimately; know when they don’t apply and where something else – an unmeasurable capacity perhaps – is the vital thing.  This thing is the thing that matters.  So I’ll treat any model as a useful guide relative to place, where its assumptions hold, but never as the Oracle of Delphi.

And I wondered why when dealing with policy and seeing universal prescriptions applied that there wasn’t the same sensitivity to that essentially ecological sense of life.  A great deal of the economics so ascendent in the 1990s (and, let’s face it, today) was the sense that the world was this universal machine defined by a reduction of things to cogs working on simple assumptions.  The mad pursuit of some version of Newtonian Economics.  Why?  Status?  Epistemological hubris?  Some delusion that reductionist ‘science’ is some higher form of knowing?  If such is the motivation, then all I can say is, “For heaven’s sake, read Aristotle!!

And it was so different from my own experiences of the complexity of nature in the field. And I knew humanity was complex as well.  So it followed that for economics to work, to be in any way useful (to have utility!), it had to work within those complexities of place and culture.  It deals in the double complexity of integrated socio-ecological systems.  But the economics that I saw didn’t.  It sat, distant, without intimacy.  Without any sense of connection, or care, or duty, or love.  It was a mechanical mind imposing their own machine metaphor on the very life support functions underpinning the economy they presume to know.  Thus “I am a Cortina Mark III,” spake the parsnip, “so you who call yourself a carrot must be one too.”

It could not even think to use a complicated model that was blind to these patterns of place.  Let alone one that didn’t care.  The local knowers are far better informed.  Those that are natural observers of connections and patterns.  Economics – I realised – had to get over the mechanical and reductionist search for Newtonian universality.

Ecology is that model for economics – and therefore a personal intimacy with the shifting patterns of community and a place.  There are economists like Manfred Max-Neef who think and act in this way – people & place centred development.  There are those who are open to the complexities, and who, rather than do the ‘objective’ thing and try to reduce and simplify for the good of the report, will embrace the system; become intimate.

Move away from the computer, out of the office, and go and watch how a man and seven dogs brings a mob of 500 over a hill and down to that gate to the south.  And then watch him take them back to a completely different place, over completely different country, with the wind coming up and the storm coming in.  Model that in your office.

Chris Perley's Blog

Edward Abbey – he of Desert Solitaire, one of the classics questioning the values of our modern world – wrote a short and scathing essay of a laboratory scientist intent on studying dog behaviour because “no one had done it before.”  In a lab of course.  Perhaps it would have its very own cage … with a blanket.  Abbey doesn’t bother to demonstrate his knowledge of dog behaviour by his interaction with dogs, he simply states that any 10 year old boy will know more from having a dog as a loved companion and playmate, than any lab scientist will ever know.  Sometimes we take the myth of objectivity a little too far.  Abbey’s essay woke me up a bit.  I realised that I had been doing similar things by looking at land through a particular lens.

It makes you think about what it is to ‘know’.  F…

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