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This post is about why my blog is so named and how a connection, in this case with ideas in a book can be life changing.
The first book that opened my eyes to science was Fritjof Capra’s book Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter (1996). If I’m honest, sitting here almost 20 years later I don’t remember much of the detail, but it was a bridging point- a profound connection- between a semi- mystical path I had been following exploring the unity and connectivity of living things (I had started to follow the Druidic tradition) and opened my eyes to a life of scientific enquiry. In my head that’s not much of a leap; you could argue druids where really the ecologists of their day, utilising the same observational techniques of the natural world, but based around a different knowledge paradigm.
In the Web of Life, Capra summarises the problems that the world faces- climate change, poverty, population growth, environmental degradation- as integrated and systematic, requiring a totally new approach to thinking about the world. He proposed that a “paradigm shift” is needed similar to that which marked the discoveries of Newton/Einstein and Lamarck/Darwin which permeated every sphere of existence. In the Web of Life he explores the movement to systems thinking away from the reductionist understanding of components. Systems also have emergent properties that are more than the sum of the parts: simply put, the bicycle is an emergent property of the positioning of pedals, wheels, saddle etc in a prescribed manner to produce a functioning system. Importantly the properties of the whole are not present in the parts, so studying components is unhelpful in understanding the properties of the system. Capra explores how systems thinking has transformed approaches across disciplines including mathematics (chaos theory), cybernetics, gaia hypothesis and autopoiesis (self-organising systems).
Systems thinking has important social science repercussions because it moves thinking away from the separation of humans and nature (a big bugbear of mine as my Web of Life will reveal); it implies integration rather than self-assertion and the triumph of ego; and networks underpin systems rather than hierarchical structures.
Capra also explores the deep ecology which broadens ecological science into a philosophy of life. More on that in future blogs.
After reading this book while a care worker at a residential home for people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviours. I started studying part –time an OU Discovering Science course and read the second of two formative books: Edward O Wilson’s Diversity of Life. It became clear to me that I wanted to study ecology- essentially the science of the distribution and abundance of populations because it encapsulated for me the take home message from Capra – the idea of connectivity and complementarity between parts and the whole. Ecology connects with so many other scientific disciplines and I think can embrace non-scientific world views as well, although many ecologists would disagree I suspect.
While the Web of Life was pivotal in changing my life, like the paradigm shifts mentioned here it crystalised some experiences and thinking that were already present; but now I had a framework of knowledge to build my experiences into and to pose more questions to test that framework. For me, as I am sure for you too, a life without at least some kind of filter through which to pass your experiences is, to use one of my father’s favourite quotes from Macbeth “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”
Today is International Mountain Day http://www.un.org/en/events/mountainday/
We don’t have any mountains in Surrey. The highest point is Leith Hill near Dorking http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leith_Hill at between 293-295m above sea level which is the second highest point in South East England after Walbury Hill http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walbury_Hill, East Berkshire at 297m asl. Gibbet Hill at Hindhead http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gibbet_Hill is the second highest point in Surrey at 272 m and followers of this blog will know this hill and its surrounding area has particularly fond memories for me.
To add some perspective I recently visited my friend Dr Wayne Dawson, a Research Associate at the University of Konstanz in Germany . Konstanz is itself 405m above sea level http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konstanz. From here we ascended into the Alpstein in Switzerland and reached the Schafler which is 1900m above sea level.
This was my first trip to this region of Europe and I was suitably awestruck both by the River Rhine and its beautiful wetland habitats such as the RAMSAR site at Wollmatinger Ried http://www.nabu-wollmatingerried.de/info.html#englisch, the historic town of Konstanz and of course the Alps which from my host town emerged from the November mist but once in my visit.
It was only on our trip into the Alpstein when I managed to escape above the clouds and found myself basking like a desperate slow-worm in beautiful autumn sunshine. We hiked in tee-shirts up to the Shafler and gazed in awe at the snow-capped crags and pinnacles of nearby Santis (2508m asl).
During a lunch break on our ascent, I fed Alpine Choughs from my hand.
Alpine chough video: http://youtu.be/ACAVn0_QgUE.
On our descent, Wayne spotted a red squirrel bounding through the snow and we watched it disappear amongst the fir trees. Nearby, I saw some ungulate tracks and a little further on we were treated to the sight of a wild Chamois, a goat-antelope species native to southern European mountains, as it did its best to coolly avoid us and other walkers out that day.
Chamois video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2BaF2II5ag
My world would be less without Mountains, and I do not depend on them for my life and livelihood. I am lucky enough to have ascended Mount Kilimanjaro (5896m asl) and to regularly receive Facebook updates from our guide Casper whose livelihood depends on ascending the mountain on a weekly basis. I made sure the group I chose to take me up Kili were paid a living wage and treated well. Its work of organisations like the International Porters Protection Group http://ippg.net who work to prevent the exploitation of locals and make sure mountain tourism provides a better livelihood for people in these remote areas.