Tag Archives: Site fidelity

Ways Toward Compassion

Singer and songwriter Betsy Rose has been visiting for a few weeks. She is travelling for eight months on a journey that will take her around the world, singing as she goes. Betsy is my sister, so of course it is wonderful to have her here, and in good sisterly fashion she’s given me the opportunity to pick her mind. She is a Buddhist, and I have saved up some questions about compassion.

Betsy Rose
Betsy Rose

The term ‘compassionate conservation’ hit me like electricity when I first heard it. How exciting it is to encounter an alternative to the treadmill of killing that claims that the only way to achieve healthy ecosystems is to kill everything that appears to get in the way of a pretty narrow human vision of what belongs and what does not. Compassionate conservation takes us right away from a suite of practices based on suffering and death, inviting us to think and act differently. The convergence of ecology and compassion is a truly significant direction for major change in our world today, but what is compassion, actually?

Betsy’s mode of engaged Buddhism draws inspiration from the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He teaches a basic message of mindfulness and peace that is becoming more profoundly urgent as our species’ penchant for violence erupts into an accelerated, global, multispecies rampage. From an ecological point of view, Buddhism offers a particularly significant human response to violence because it links individuals into wider networks of living beings and aims for the well-being of all.

Guan Yin detail, Akuppa John Wigham (CC)
Guan Yin detail, Akuppa John Wigham (CC)

Many Buddhist prayers ask that all beings be free from suffering. There is, of course, no way to eliminate suffering from life – the two go hand in hand, just as joy and life go hand in hand. But we human creatures have it within us to change our own behaviour so as not to cause suffering needlessly, and it is possible to work toward more peaceful, less brutal societal relations between humans and other creatures. The emerging field of compassionate conservation aims to accomplish this manner of social change in the domains of ecological management and conservation. And yet …

the Buddhist idea of well-being goes way beyond welfare.

The provocation to western thought is huge! Welfare can be understood as freedom from suffering, whereas well-being implies that beings are actually capable of experiencing the goodness of life. This is so significant that it can be hard to take in. One has to pause for a moment to consider what the experience of well-being implies. In ecological terms, we would say that all beings have their own life-world, and they experience it subjectively. Creatures, whether large or tiny, are not machines, but rather are subjects: they have ways of life, modes of being, forms of action and interaction. Worlds of subjectivity include time, place, mobility, sustenance and much more.

Migrating butterflies, Bruce Tuten (CC)
Migrating butterflies, Bruce Tuten (CC)

One effect of the Buddhist commitment to well-being is that it calls for commitment to ways of life. And in this world of connectivities, commitments keep expanding. For example, commitment to a migratory species must surely include the path of their travel, and commitment to species whose strong site fidelity brings them home to reproduce must involve commitment to those home places. We might think with others in terms of their precious well-being and be reminded of salmon running up their specific streams to spawn; or the lovely synchronicity between flowers, nourishing pollen and pollinators as butterflies migrate from Mexico to Canada and back; or turtles returning to specific beaches to lay their eggs.

Buddhist commitment to well-being apparently involves a lively, unlimited recognition of the connected world in which creatures are capable of experiencing joy in their own well-being. A short section of the Buddhist prayer of universal love reveals this:

May all beings everywhere,
Seen and unseen
Dwelling far off or nearby
Being or waiting to become:
May all be filled with lasting joy.

Visitors at Elephant Nature Park, Christian Haugen (CC)
Visitors at Elephant Nature Park, Christian Haugen (CC)

I did a short interview with Betsy (view here), asking about her travels and her activism. We filmed at home with the relentless rain contributing a little hum in the background. Betsy had encountered a multispecies zone of compassion at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and she offered a vivid description of the thrill of being in an animal-centric place. There, humans are just visitors, and the focus, organisation and management of the place is dedicated to the well-being of the other (non-human) animals. To close the interview, Betsy sang one of the songs she wrote expressing Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist teachings. It is particularly moving to me because it is about breathing. Breath is immensely inclusive: all the myriad creatures (plants, fungi, animals, many bacteria) breathe in one form or another, and the wind is the breath of the world. Wind, breath, life, well-being: it flows through us all.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources

For more about Betsy and her music, visit here. To follow her travels, visit here. Her first posting, from Thailand, tells of how she was honoured with the ‘International Tara Award’. To learn more about the Elephant Nature Reserve, visit here.

The Centre for Compassionate Conservation at UTS has excellent material on this ethical approach to conservation. I  have addressed issues involving compassionate conservation in a number of essays, for example, ‘How to Love a Pest’.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s work and teachings are well documented, for example at the site for Plum Village in France.

The west’s understanding that creatures inhabit their own worlds of meaning owes its recent history to the continental biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944). Brett Buchanan has provided an excellent analysis of Uexküll’s influence in more recent philosophy in his book Onto-Ethologies. Thom van Dooren and I have developed some of this thought in relation to how two types of animals, penguins and flying-foxes, create worlds of meaning that focus on place. Our article is available on the web.

Site Fidelity

A couple of weeks ago I was swimming in Lake Washington. I had paddled about in this large snow-fed Seattle lake when I was a child, and in recent years it has been wonderful to return. This October I was using a lazy breaststroke so that I could hold Mt Rainier in my sight. The lake shimmered with ripples, waves and sun. The mountain gleamed with snow and ice, light and shadow.

Lake and Mountain, Selbe B (CC)
Lake and Mountain, Selbe B (CC)

It was a perfect swim, and I reflected with gratitude that the outcome of the geographical tug of war between my father (east coast) and mother (west coast) had never really been in doubt. Yes, we bounced back and forth, also sometimes landing in regions between the two coasts, but for the past several decades it has been Seattle, the lake, the mountains and the Pacific Ocean that have anchored my natal family and given a great deal of meaning to our lives. Many of our stories and many of the events of our lives have been connected to the beauty and generosity of lake and mountain.

How one comes to be attached to specific places is a process that is both deeply known and yet also forever mysterious. Many attachments are formed early, some stick and some do not. Some people experience them more deeply and non-negotiably than others, but in all cases attachments to place also involve time. Memories form around places, and as they are acted upon they accumulate, and so they are enhanced.

Attachments to place are deeply embedded in memory, action, and anticipation.

Place-action becomes part of the process of meaning-making, so that place, like the living creatures who grow into it, exists in the lives and minds of creatures who themselves come and go, and are sustained by place. It may not be so well known that humans are by no means the only creatures to form attachments to place. Amongst nonhuman animals one process of attachment is known as site fidelity (the tendency or desire to return).

Thom van Dooren and I recently wrote an article about place and meaning-making in the lives of two animal species who have strong place-attachments here in Sydney – flying-foxes and little penguins. We wanted to make the point that whatever functionalities are involved in creatures’ determination to return to the same places to breed (philopatry), there is also the wider domain of meaning which exceeds functionality.

These animals, we were saying, inhabit places made meaningful through their own practices of memory, action and anticipation. As with humans, attachment is both enriching and exposing. The great philosopher of place, Edward Casey, reminds us that to be emplaced is also to face the ‘unhappy prospect’ of becoming unplaced. He was pointing toward the anguish of those whose homes are no longer inhabitable.

Little penguins at Manly, cocoa3c (CC)
Little penguins at Manly, cocoa3c (CC)

As Thom explains in the context of nonhumans, meaningful places are not just ‘habitats’. They are not interchangeable, but rather are experiential worlds that can be understood as ‘home’. It follows that site fidelity, although it sounds quite formal, is really about intimacy: the familiarity, security, knowledge, confidence, and intergenerational gifting that goes into making homes.

While I was in Seattle I was forcibly reminded that there is a strong human dimension to home and homelessness that may often be overlooked: ‘home’ is not just a roof over one’s head, but is a complicated and irreplaceable world of meaning. People want to go home, or to find home, and so do those other animals whose lives are shaped by site fidelity. Penguins return to their burrows in Manly every year in spite of the fact that every year the place becomes more built-up, noisy and dangerous. Flying-foxes attempt to return to their camps every year, and it takes sonic torture and other horrific modes of ‘dispersal’ to force them away from their home places.

Grey-headed flying-fox, Nick Edards
Grey-headed flying-fox, Nick Edards

I couldn’t help but think about the lives of creatures I love as I enacted my own site fidelity by swimming in the lake. We try to make things better for ourselves as humans, at least some of the time. Lake Washington became so polluted once that it was dangerous to swim in, but it has been cleaned up. What, though, do we do to ease the anguish of nonhumans whose attachments to place and to their future generations is every bit as committed as ours?

My family’s site fidelity, like that of flying-foxes and penguins, has been an intergenerational project. Flying-foxes return to maternity camps to give birth, penguins return to their familiar burrows to hatch and fledge their young. In my family, Lake Washington was where my mother and her parents had swum, and our family kept returning.

Recently we added another chapter to our attachments to place, time and generations when our mother died in her bed at home facing the lake. We kept her body with us until the afternoon, and when the professionals came to take her away we sang ‘Will the circle be unbroken’. The clouds parted and the sun shone with astonishing heat and brilliance.

There was only one thing to do:   we ran to the jetty and jumped into the lake.

DSC03200

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources: The article Thom and I wrote is called ‘Storied-places in a multispecies city’ (read here).

Edward Casey’s work on becoming ‘unplaced’. as I mention here, can be found in one of his major books Getting Back Into Place.

Little penguins are also the subject of a chapter in Thom’s book Flight Ways, a terrific new book about which I will have more to say soon.