ISBN: 9781890132422 Year Added to Catalog: 1999 Book Format: Paperback Book Art: Black and white illustrations Dimensions: 6 x 9 Number of Pages: 193 Book Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing Old ISBN: 189013242X Release Date: May 31, 1999 Web Product ID: 581
During another day in another desert, I was peeing on a rock. Not much was moving in the afternoon heat. The biggest movement was my urine flowing across the surface of the rock, so I watched that. It converged into little streams that flowed over the edges of the rock onto the plants below. Plants were not common in this desert, so I thought it strange that my urine should be dropping onto plants. Then I saw the Fit. The slopes and cracks that guide my urine to those plants will also guide the rare rains to them. The rain falling on several square feet of rock will be channeled to a few square inches of desert soil. This concentration of moisture lavishly nourishes any desert seed lucky enough to drift to this spot. I looked around at other rocks. They all had clumps of plants scattered around their bases. Above each clump was the end of a micro-valley draining the micro-slopes above it. A minute ago I had simply seen "rocks," a quick label that glossed over details. Now the Fit between rocks and plants drew my eyes to micro-drainages. The micro-drainages were different sizes, which led me to notice that the clumps of plants were also different sizes. The larger micro-drainages had larger clumps of plants below them. The more runoff the clump received, the larger it could grow. This implies that all these clumps would expand during a wet year and contract during a dry year. Each clump was a rain gauge if I only knew how to read it. I delight each time I discover the Fit between two pieces of the world. The delight is similar to (but deeper than) fitting together two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When two puzzle pieces fit together, they reveal more of the picture than they did apart. The delight I feel each time I see the Fit between pieces of the world feels like a glimpse of a beautiful picture too vast for me yet to see. Each glimpse tantalizes me to discover the Fit between other pieces.
The Two Levels
Mid-September. Late autumn in the foothills of the Alaskan Range. Red and brown leaves on the low tundra plants. Freezing nights. I am sitting quietly in geological thought. I grow vaguely aware of bird calls downslope. A snow bunting lands near me. Then another and another. I look around. Downslope, the tundra is covered with hundreds of foraging snow buntings. Other buntings are flying over them and landing all around me. Soon I am surrounded by chirping snow buntings busily foraging. Birds from somewhere downslope fly just over my head in a small but steady flow and land at the head of the foraging flock, so that more and more birds hop about upslope of me. Eventually, the downslope end of the flock comes into sight. I can see that the birds flying overhead to the front of the flock are coming from the back edge of the flock. When these birds fly up from the back, the birds that are foraging ahead of them become the new back edge of the flock. They in turn fly forward. This behavior creates a steady stream of birds flying from the back of the flock to the front, which is now far upslope of me. The flock flows over the land. By shifting my focus between the two different levels of flow, I see two different but equally wonderful behaviors. When I focus on the individual level, on individual snow buntings within the flock, I see each bird able to devote five minutes to foraging securely in the middle of a thousand chirping birds. When the bird notices that it is at the back edge of the flock and no longer protected, it takes a quick half-minute flight up to the head of the flock. Within seconds, it is again surrounded and can resume its search for food. When I focus on the group level of the flow, I see the flock as a great wheel rolling south over the tundra. The back of the flock rolls up and over the flock on the ground and touches down ahead of it. This flow guarantees that each bird won't land on an area already harvested by another member of the flock. The rolling of the flock never stops, for the season is late. The flock doesn't move as fast as individual birds could fly but it remains in motion even as each bird is given the opportunity and protection to rest and feed on the sparse harvest of the late-Autumn tundra. The back end of the flock reaches me. A few stragglers, intent on foraging, hop about. One looks up, sees it is no longer in the protection of the flock, gives a startled call, and flies upslope toward the front of the flock. The other stragglers hear the call and fly away. The foraging flock rolls away up the slope. The thousand chirps recede, leaving me behind in the vast stillness.
The Rule of Flow
IF I TURN THE WATER ON FULL BLAST so that it pours into the sink faster than it drains away, the water level rises. If I turn the water down so that it drains away faster than it pours in, the water level drops. At rush hour, more cars enter the freeways than exit. Traffic accumulates. Rush hour subsides as more cars exit the freeways than enter. Dust is so tiny that it almost floats in air. It takes hours for dust to settle in absolutely calm air and the slightest drafts, which homes are flill of, keep the dust particles stirred up. Some of this dust drifts under the bed, where the air is calm enough for some of the dust to settle. Not as much dust drifts out as drifted in, so balls of dust gradually grow beneath the bed. Water swirls out from a stream's main current, circles in an eddy, and flows beneath the surface back to the main current. Floating things, however, cannot follow the underwater path out of the eddy. Sticks, leaves, and dead bugs floating on the water can flow into the eddy but they can't flow out, so they gather within the eddy. Each eddy inevitably accumulates a spinning "raft" of debris.
The Rule of Flow connects the two levels within any flow~ The Rule of Flow is this:
Inflow greater than outflow causes an accumulation at the group level. If I earn dollars (individual level) faster than I spend them, my bank account (group level) increases.
Inflow less than outflow causes a reduction at the group level. If I wash clothes (individual level) faster than they get dirty, the laundry pile (group level) diminishes.
If inflow is equal to outflow, the group level remains steady. If I exercise and hurn up calories (individual level) as fast as I eat them, my weight (group level) remains constant.
The balance between inflow and outflow determines what happens on the group level. If I make a million dollars per day, my bank account will still dwindle if I spend two million dollars per day. If I reduce living expenses to twenty cents per week, my bank account will still dwindle if I make only ten cents a week. The balance is relative. A change in either inflow or outflow can shift the relative balance, causing the group level to change in a new direction. Lines form in grocery stores when shoppers flow to the check-out stands faster than they can be checked out. When the lines grow too long, another check-out stand is opened. Outflow increases. If the outflow becomes greater than inflow, the lines will shorten. Agencies that lack competition often won't open another window even when their lines are enormously long, as many drivers seeking to renew their licenses have experienced. Reducing outflow has the same effect on the relative balance as increasing inflow. When I am cold, I can turn up the heat or put on a jacket. A well-insulated jacket warms me not by increasing the flow of heat to my body but by reducing the flow of heat away from my body. This shifts the relative balance. Heat (individual level) flowing away from me starts to accumulate beneath the jacket and the temperature (group level) next to my body rises. Its like getting into a shower in which the water is too cold. I tend to automatically turn up the hot water. But I can also warm the shower by turning down the cold water. There is always more than one way to shift a relative balance.
The Rule of Flow might seem simplistically obvious when applied to situations with which we are familiar, but it helps me notice flows that I would otherwise overlook. For example, male deer, moose, and elk grow a pair of antlers each year. The antlers reach full size by autumn. After the mating season, the antlers drop off. A new set of antlers develops the following spring. The Rule of Flow prepares my mind to see the antlers as an inflow onto the ground each autumn. But the fallen antlers don't accumulate century after century until the land is covered by an impenetrable thicket of fallen antlers. Somehow the antlers flow away from the forest floor at the same annual rate they enter. But how? Occasionally I find stumps of antler among the spruce cones of a squirrel's midden pile. Tiny gnaw marks etch the remaining bits of antler. These clues reveal what is happening to the antlers. Rodents eat them. Fallen antlers (and bones) are a winter source of calcium and phosphorous for many animals. All through the winter, antlers flow from the forest floor into rodents. The flow doesn't stop in the rodents, either. The rodents defecate, eventually die. The minerals from their bodies dissolve into the soil, where plants absorb them and use them to grow new leaves. All summer, the deer eat the leaves. Some of the minerals accumulate within the growing new antlers. I once saw antlers as just antlers, but now I perceive them as an accumulation on the group level of minerals flowing through soil, plants, deer, and rodents. The Rule of Flow helps me connect parts of the world that I previously saw as separate.
Reversing the Spiral
But downward spirals can be reversed; I've seen it happen in the fields. Reversing a spiral requires work, but it is possible. Each time I walk in the lands of Gaia, her beautiful, upward spirals rekindle my hope. Each time I watch grass growing in a channel or see soil rising over rocks, I seem to hear Gaia whisper: Begin the work even though you cannot see the path by which this work can lead to your goal. Do not block your power with your current understanding. Evolution is the process by which the impossible becomes possible through small, accumulating changes. Concentrate on the direction, not the size of the change. Begin the work with actions that seem tinier than necessary but that are small enough to maintain. The rate of change is slow at first, but do not prematurely judge your efforts. Change happens through spirals; the work grows upon itself. As little changes accumulate, they will reinforce one another and make larger changes possible. Gradually, balances will shift. Enemies that block the way will become allies that lead the way. Where and how this happens cannot be predicted. You do not work alone. Billions of other living things are doing the work. You are part of an invisible power. As it grows, the erosive power will fade. Begin the work.