Ecology is usually thought of as a study of nature. But because it is derived from the Greek word for household, ecology literally means “the study of home,” according to Robert Macfarlane in Orion Magazine.
I thought of Macfarlane’s definition when flying home; First, my airline was late getting to San Francisco, delaying to midnight, my long overnight trip to Boston. Since the last time I flew, the seats had become smaller and packed tighter together; the center corridor had shrunk so much that the hospitality cart, stuffed with pretzels and water bottles, bumped against me as it rolled past; and, on top of that, a baby in the next row — sensing this theater of the absurd — screeched intermittently for the whole ride.
I used to think of my home on Jenness Pond as a sanctuary, but, as Macfarlane writes, “Human activity… is rapidly rendering the entire planet uncanny, … unhomely. He quotes the environmental writer Aldo Leopold’s famous line about how, consequently, one “lives alone in a world of wounds.”
That’s how I felt: Like a wounded animal, willing to chew his leg off to escape this flying cabin. The airline, realizing that such a situation could lead to angry reactions, posted posters prominently warning that aggressive behavior would not be tolerated and could result in jail time. While I agree violence should be punished, so should airlines that treat passengers like widgets on an assembly line.
But beyond exploitive airline practices, humans were never designed to endure supersonic travel. Instead, our species’ natural mode of locomotion is walking, which, as an added benefit, gives us a sense of contentment and wellbeing by allowing us time to appreciate our surroundings. Sadly that rarely happens anymore. Now, too often, we are treated like sheep, herded around at breakneck speeds by border collies.
We can gain a perspective on this by observing Australian Aborigines: they know a thing or two about how to live, as they have the longest cultural history of anyone on earth, dating back at least 50,000 years. They live in what they call ‘Dreamtime’, where there is no distinction between past, present, and future. Instead, they walk through their precious landscape, dreaming reality into being.
Before you dismiss this notion as ridiculous, remember the wise words of Henry David Thoreau: “I do not know how to distinguish between our waking life and a dream. Are we not always living the life that we imagine we are?” Perhaps Thoreau became wise because, like the Australian Aborigines, he liked to saunter along on foot, dreaming reality into being.
In common with Thoreau, indigenous people have a robust and unbreakable sense of place. As they walk along, they build their reality by telling stories about their connection to the particular terrain they are passing, in both cultural and personal terms.
I remember reading an account about an anthropologist walking beside such an indigenous person in the bush, listening as he created his story based on what he was seeing. However, things changed when he took the man for a ride in his jeep: the tribesman’s speech speeded up as the vehicle did until the man was speaking gibberish. He could no longer talk fast enough to relate to the passing landscape.
That’s how I felt on that plane ride home.
Everything is getting speeded up, in part because our world is so spread out that it takes more time to get to places. As a step in the right direction,The 15-Minute City Project was created by the urbanist Dan Luscher. It’s a simple but profound concept of creating communities where you can get everything you need within a 15 minute walk from home. It would promote human values and an increased sense of wellbeing.
It is all voluntary. There are no mandates to restrict cars or curtail our liberties. Unfortunately, 15-Minute Cities opposed by the same rightwing forces that don’t believe in climate change or mask mandates. Conservative commentators and conspiracy theorists claim such a policy would be nothing short of a communist takeover.
They forget that before 1950 -before highways and suburbs became dominant — most cities were 15-minute cities. As the Australian Aborigines understand, sometimes the best future lies in our past.
Note: The photo at the top I took of my son almost 40 years ago standing beside the lake we both grew up on