Some days ago I was woken up by a chainsaw.
A hundred meters away from my home two workers were cutting down a huge maple tree next to the road.
It was a weird moment. Not only because a chainsaw scores relatively low on my list of favourite wake-up calls, but here I am woken up to two strangers cutting down a tree next to my home, a tree much older than these two guys combined. I was outraged. Someone should have spoken to me before taking action. In fact, someone should have spoken to all the families living in the close proximity of this tree, before two anonymous guys came to cut it down, load all the wood into a truck and drive off, leaving just a stump of what used to be a ten-meter tall tree. Although this tree was not one of those old wise trees you go to to talk about your problems, it was still an entity that, already because of its size and age, should have been shown more respect. If you cut into the middle of a spider’s web you leave a clear mark. And a tree of that size is a junction in the middle of the web, not at the periphery. Cutting it down causes a lot of changes.
Some time ago this year I went to a seminar held by my teacher Uwe Belz. I've been learning from Uwe for eight years, and he has always been a great source of wisdom and of the feeling of being-in-the-world for me.
Near the end of the seminar, Uwe gave us the task to „take care“ of his camp and its immediate surroundings. To go out, observe and take actions that would lead to some positive changes. To be less abstract: to observe what the relation is between the plants growing there, as well as that to the connected animals. We were also to take care of plants that needed help, for example, if their survival was being threatened by other plants that were too invasive.
I went out into the woods. And as I was striding around and then sitting down close to a narrow path leading up a slope, observing and trying to listen to the plants, I felt the overwhelmingness of the task. I tried to take action but felt stunned. What reasoning would my actions come from? Here in a place that was not meant to be used for one of the major human driving forces these days: economics. It also wasn't my task to help the growth of edible plants or other ones that are useful from a human standpoint. I was here just to take care? But taking care from the perspective of what or where or whom? I felt that maybe a good angle to work from would be diversity. So I started to look around to see how I could help the flora to grow in a diverse way, allowing plants that were being choked by others to flourish. But after looking around for some time, I still felt unable to take any action. I felt that I would need to sit here for a full year or two, just observing the plants growing in that small area a few feet across that I was overlooking, to get a sense of how I could do something good. I took a few more steps up the hill and sat down just a few meters away from my first spot. After some time of observing and thinking, I finally took a few actions, trying to help some plants that I felt were in a minority in that place. But I stayed very modest with my interventions because I still wasn't quite sure what I would create in the long run. Changing something in the environment felt like an unbearable burden. I realised I might cause changes that could still have an impact in a thousand years. And we always do this on different scales. The Romans cut down the forests all over the North African coast to build their triremes, and two thousand years later the changes they made are still having an effect. Today we create long lasting effects on a large scale all over the planet. As we change the climate, there are no places untouched by humans anymore. But even my foot touching the forest ground is creating change. I cannot not change the environment, since every breath I take, every noise I make, my every movement is already changing it. But the feeling of actively taking that responsibility instead of leaving it in the realm of randomness is overwhelming. I did not know what do to. If there is a god, he must either be very frustrated or a pantheistic one, since the only way to have an understanding of all of this is to be part of everything. I walked a few steps further, taking a few more actions, and some steps later I even found a place where I felt somewhat confident in changing a few minor things.
When I returned to camp I came past a small semi-wild field of edible plants. I went into that field and started to sort out some plants that were not edible. This felt manageable. If you have a clear ideology, a bit of knowledge and the ability to ignore what you don't know (maybe that plant that I just took out of the earth is actually edible), then taking action is much easier. To separate edible and non-edible in a garden is much more simple than changing things in the wild, a place that resides beyond simplistic rational thinking. In the garden, the human being is a god. Creating worlds. But if you do not wish to make the woods into a garden, then you need to be a servant. A servant to the woods. And one that does not understand much, so the only way is to listen and observe, which takes a lot of time. Considering our power and ignorance I feel that often the question is not how to change the world, but how not to.
I do not understand this world. Not at all.
When I came back to camp I told Uwe my story. He nodded. I had learned my lesson.
Joseph Bartz 2016