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An Ecological Function For
The Making and Sharing of the Arts

John Caddy


I want you to explore an idea with me. It may seem at odds with ordinary thought, but the concept has risen in my mind slowly, building gradually through long experience as poet and earth educator, and as student of nature, until it sits comfortably grown inside me.

Here is my thinking, put plain:

Art of all sorts, both in its making and its sharing, has  ecological function.

The ecological function of art is to connect humans with the  biosphere.

From another direction, much of what we make and share in poetry, music, dance, painting, sculpture, and the rest, is the biosphere celebrating or contemplating itself. 

Making art is a process of integration of the human part of life with the whole of life. In system terms, human art-making is an emergent property of the biosphere that integrates the singular person with larger wholes at several levels of organization. Art is a celebration of belonging.

Let me describe a few paths my thought follows.

Ecological Function

Every human society creates a panoply of arts. All cultures make poems, dance, create stories, visual art, and so on. Art-making is a species-level behavior, and as such, it is biological, which is to say, it has function.

(There are those who argue that claims of function in biology/ecology imply causes and are teleological, thus irrelevant.  But living systems, we are now realizing, are self-organizing, open systems that are characterized by emergent properties which inescapably do have functions. Function refers to what properties of systems do, accomplish, and do not imply intention or purpose.)

The concept “biological function” is a species level concept that by its nature excludes relations with other species. The concept “ecological function,” is the more accurate term for my idea, because it is precisely human relationships with the rest of Earth life that are central to art, both in its making and sharing.


Why We Make Art

That said, people have many intentions and purposes for making art, and these, of course, vary with artist, culture and moment. Artists will argue that they have many reasons for making their art, and they do. However, I suggest that three roots have always motivated art-making, namely celebration, healing, and learning:

  • Celebration: Shared joy grows. We express in arts our joy of life, our perception of beauty, our thanks for Earth in continual rites of jubilation that we name dance, music, poetry, sculpture, painting, story and religion. When we share what we have made, our joy expands, for we have enlarged our circle of self to include others.
  • Healing:  Shared pain shrinks. Life is often confusing and filled with suffering. We express our pain through art-making, and discover that the act lessens pain. The art we make is first a kind of sharing within the self, which gives our speechless parts voice and moves us toward wholeness. Our pain has been taken out of our subjective universe and been made tangible, therefore shareable. When we do share our made art with other people, they can empathize, which not only eases our pain but reinforces our knowledge of belonging to larger transpersonal systems.
  • Learning: Cultures have always passed along their higher truths as mythic re-enactments of origins, and recreations of the sacred year cycle. The three central concerns of such learning/teaching are the three questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? What should we do?

Who Are We? Anthropic Principle?

In popular cosmology, the claim is made that humanity is the cosmos regarding itself, the universe made self-aware. (Not just our planet, mind you, but the cosmos entire: galaxies, stars, dark matter, all the trillions of solar systems). Some thinkers regard our self-awareness as evidence that we are too great an improbability nested within many improbabilities for our existence to be accidental. (Search Goldilocks Effect).

With anthropocentric hubris and tautological expressions, wishful cosmologists have devised the so-called Anthropic Principle, which is an attempt to return humanity to the center of the universe, as if Sol still revolved about Earth.  In a nutshell,this “principle” claims that since we are here to observe the universe, we must be the purpose of the universe. Could it be that Narcissus is still staring into the pool?

Who Are We Here, on Earth?

Let’s narrow the horizon here. Instead of extrapolating that human consciousness is crucial to the whole universe, let’s just stick to Earth, the Biosphere, enormous and still mostly unknown to us, its rowdy children. This is our most intimate connection: our flesh and bones are made of Earth.  Since life began, it has built bodies with the readily available nutrients that compose the air and ocean.

Every living body on Earth is composed of atoms and molecules that have been parts of other living bodies countless times before. Our bodies are 100% post-consumer content. We are portions of Earth, not passengers on a planet. (Dust thou art, and to dust shall ye return.) We must learn to perceive ourselves as embedded in, and one aspect of, the biosphere.
Our ambiguous gift is that we are parts of Earth that have become conscious, self-aware and introspective.  As Homo sapiens emerged into the Biosphere, the biosphere began to be capable of observing itself.

What is implied by the knowledge that we are portions of Earth become conscious? We do things that may be unique to our species:

  • We use complex tools
  • We have complex languages.
  • We rely on cultural inheritance more than on instinct.
  • We can bind time--we can imagine past and future—, by imagining “what if”; we can Imagine!.
  • We make art of many kinds.

These are our defining qualities. They allow us to speculate, wonder, be awed by and meditate upon the cosmos and the living planet Earth. They also allow us to share our responses to existence.

In ancient and traditional cultures, the role of humans on Earth is to enable the proper functioning of Earth, through performing rituals of the sacred year. Time is circular, as Earth orbits Sol, and the sacred year is reborn in each orbit. The essential human role is the ceremony cycle to ensure the sacred year’s rebirth.

The Confluence of Art and Ecology

What is more interesting than the Anthropic Principle is that we--humanity—have become Earth responding to its own existence. 

Each human being is to the Biosphere as Microcosm is to Macrocosm. (See note below)

Creating art is one of the primary and most durable ways human consciousness responds to existence. Art-making in this large view is a species-level response to humanity's own existence, and at the largest level of organization, art-making is the biosphere perceiving and expressing itself.

I suggest that much that happens in the arts is  Earth thinking about or contemplating itself.

The first principle of ecology is that everything is connected.

Life on Earth is above all relational. All is connected systematically by relationships of energy transfer and matter exchange and by solar processes that govern wind and water. All lives are interwoven and dependent on other life. Most lives survive by using as nutrients the waste-products of other lives, e.g. animals breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide; cyanobacteria, algae and plants breathe carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. All living beings are tightly coupled with many other living beings; their health is our health.

The word Biosphere means the “sphere of life,” that surrounds Earth, and the rock, water and air that supports life. All parts of the biosphere are tightly integrated. The entire biosphere can be conceived as a vast dynamic pool of atoms from which living organisms briefly rise and fall back again. The atoms in this pool have been assembled into life forms then disassembled again countless times for two billion years.

No life exists in isolation; every life exists embedded in a context of relationships. This context is often metaphored as a network or a web, each knot in the net, or each node or intersection in the network, being an organism or physical event, and the lines between them their relationships. This enormous combination of ecosystems we call the Biosphere is so thoroughly integrated that the density of relationship blacks out the visual metaphor.

Integration and Wholeness

We have circled back to the beginning.

What is functional about all this making we call art? What does it accomplish?

Humans have another defining quality, one we are less clear about than the short list above, one we share with many other residents of Earth:

We need to belong. We need to know that we are part of something beyond our selves; we have a drive to join up.

In spite of our recent adoration of idiosyncrasy, the arts are communal processes that emerge from every kind and age of human culture and person, and build on themselves over time.

The process of experiencing art, as maker or re-maker, is the integration of the part with the whole. in Deep Ecology terms, art is the integration of self with larger "Self." Art, whether in its making or in its experiencing, names a transpersonal process that connects persons with the rest of life, that integrates a bit of conscious earth with the living planet.

Art-making is one example of our urge to join up, to be symbionts, to cooperate. Our urge is to fit.

This may be hard at first to see, for our perceptions have been sadly skewed by the Neo-Darwinist applause of competition cozily joined by the central beliefs of corporate capitalism, which proclaims, with satisfaction, "it’s a jungle out there!"
Well, actually, no, "It's an ecology out there. And in here."

Recent microbiology has demonstrated without doubt that various collaborations and cooperations of living organisms are in fact the baseline organizations of life, that symbiosis within and among living systems is the central life process, not competition. (search symbiogenesis).

'I' Seem to be 'We'

Humans are notoriously divided creatures; we are of two minds, we argue within ourselves and without, parts of our brain can speak, parts are mute. Venus and Mars battle forever. Our feelings are often at odds with our good sense.

Walt Whitman said, in Leaves of Grass:

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.
I am large. I contain multitudes."

Our ordinary state is multiple; perhaps we yearn to be singular, to enjoy again the clear simplicity we believe we once had.

Brain research about the right and left hemispheres of the cerebrum has been popularized to near death; The hemispheres specialize in different activities and have difficulty communicating across the narrow corpus callosum.

Most popularizations of the left brain/right brain hypothosis, however, skirt or ignore the fact that the cerebrum is not the entire brain, but only the most “recent” of three sequential parts. This concept  was christened the triune brain by Paul McLean, physician and research neurophysiologist. McLean pointed out that evolution is conservative; it tends to add things on, rather than junk old systems and start new. So in primate evolution, the brain is additive, and has three "vertical" parts.

  1. Reptiles have a very old-style brain, old, that is, for vertebrates. We have one, the top of the brain stem, the R-complex. It is not a forgotten ancestor, dozing in the brilliance of the neocortex. Our old crocodile brain wakes often, and take over at times. Think road rage. Think social dominance, when someone cuts into a line in front of you. Think fight or flight.
  2. Atop our reptile brain sits the limbic system, the old mammal brain. This old 'horse' is ancient; it includes structures that are the seat of emotions, eidetic memory, hormones and homeostatic systems.
  3. The huge human cerebrum sits above and before all the rest. The cerebral cortex, the top of the cerebrum, is the part with two hemispheres.

These three “brains” of different ages have had to work out ways to integrate their systems, but intra-personal communication is often difficult. Our interior conversations are often garbled; language does not occur in the R-complex, and minimally in the limbic system. Consider that making art can be seen as a process of allowing voice to the parts of our brains that cannot speak.

None of this is news: Some 2,300 years ago, Plato figuratively described the division of the human soul :

[In my figure,] I divide each soul into three -- two horses and a charioteer; and one of the horses is good and the other bad…The right-hand horse is upright and cleanly made; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose; his colour is white, and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only.  The other is a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.  (Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Jowett)

So. We are a kind of evolutionary Humpty Dumpty, off the wall. Our selves are fragmented, and at times the conscious part does not run things. We are the creature that seems always yearning to be whole, to get it together. We want for all our bits and pieces to be integrated into a smoothly-running whole, pieces of broken shell smooth and ovoid again, yolk and white floating serenely within.


Humans join up, we like to belong.  We have a drive to become parts of things larger than our selves: organizations, regions, ideologies, religions, choirs, soap operas. When we do link up this way, psychologists call this “transpersonal process.” (Trans=beyond + personal—a reaching out beyond the self.  This is a familiar process in daily life.

We “identify” with our schools and their teams, we identify with football teams and baseball teams, we identify with those who share our religion, our language, our ethnic heritage, our cities, and we brand our bodies with the logos of consumer products.

We yearn toward wholeness, to be one within our persons and to be one with larger entities. We find hints and paths toward personal integration in many traditions. In Asian thought, Taoist and Buddhist philosophies describe this sense of wholeness as a loss of ego, a letting go of the importance of self.

One way this very human desire for integration becomes real is by immersion of the entire person in an act of making, of doing. When we write or draw or compose, and become absorbed in the process, awareness tends to disappear into the process, and we are whole without even, at the time, knowing it. Afterward, we may sense a loss and want that state of being back.

The Tao suggests that to fill, you must first become empty. But we sophisticates of contemporary cultures fear our own emptiness. We are desperately afraid that without our distractions and interior chatter, there is nothing at the center.

Our culture rarely permits persons to be out of contact with others, witness cell-phone mania. The result is that people do not realize their strength; our culture rarely provides ways to discover it. We need ways for people to learn comfort in their own presence. Making a poem, a painting, a sculpture, a song is one such way.

Our yearning toward wholeness was described powerfully by
the Ogalala Lakota holy man, Black Elk, in the 1930s:

The Power of the World always works in circles,
and everything tries to be round.
The sky is round, and I have heard
that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars.

The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.

Birds make their nests in circles,
for theirs is the same religion as ours.

The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle.
The moon does the same, and both are round.
Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing,
and always come back again to where they were.

The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood,
and so it is in everything where power moves.

from Black Elk and John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks

“Everything tries to be round” … what does that mean? It means, among other things, that we want to be complete, as a circle or sphere is complete. Perhaps our most ancient recognition of this is the Yin and Yang symbol complementary opposites fused into one. To be complete is to be whole.

Every act of creation, of making some thing where no thing was before, has this ability to help us to become, however temporarily, whole.

In my own creative process, losing the ego in making, in doing, is like entering the sentience of a fox or cat, a pure presence in the breaking wave of now. This state allows a deep attention to and immersion in the moment.

We must recognize that humanity, especially in the West, has spent enormous effort and prayer, shame and guilt, in denial that humans are Natural. First peoples, indigenes, find this refusal to accept obvious truth to be silly. We have become culturally estranged from the rest of Nature, a willful biophobia. But my experience as an artist teaching children leads me to wonder in what ways Nature inhabits the human mind despite cultural training.

My awareness of what people are, and what we contain, was jarred into being long ago by my five year old son, Owen. He was playing with matchbox cars on the carpet, when I put a new LP (vinyl recording) of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos on the stereo. We listened. He stopped playing and heard Bach. When it was over, I asked him, "Well, what did you think of that?"

He said,

"It made my feelings go
like a buffalo hit me with his nose,
and it was hard as light."

I’ve since spent forty years in schools helping kids and adults release the poems inside them. My most profound learning has been that humans arrive on this earth already equipped to create in the arts. The role of the teaching artist is to help people release what is already inside, not to fill empty vessels with creativity. From the beginning of this work, I became aware of how powerfully kids create when their images come from nature, from that intuitive awareness of being natural beings that kids have.

Here’s a poem by 7-year-old Tom Johnson:


My blood makes a circle
through my heart.

Earth makes a circle.
We, of Earth, are one part.

What Tom knows intuitively, what children are still allowed to briefly know, is that we are natural beings, and to image nature brings us to a place where we know we belong.

When asked to write about a healing place he could somehow enter when he was hurting, an inner-city sixth grader, found his healing energy in a dream forest:


I jump out my window and slide
under the old pine tree.
Just me and my pen
and paint and canvas,
and I draw until I am sleepy.

I head for the tree house
on the tallest and largest tree
of the forest,
take a glance at the mountains
behind the forest,
playing with the pink sky
and white clouds.

I pick up my canvas and draw me
riding on one of the clouds
until I fall asleep.

I dream of my family
riding with me on a cloud.
I wake up just in time
to head back to my bedroom.

I will be back, but for now
the gates of the Night Forest are closed.

--Tereance Jamile Reams Walker

Another 12 year old city boy found energy in union with the shrub plantings of his housing project:


In the whispering bushes
I talk to myself,
I sing a song until the winds come and join,
I hide behind the whispering bushes,
and in the bushes a gate
opens in and out with a special key.
To open the gate,
you have to use your mind.

I sing another song
when the light shines on me.

When daylight chills out
I’ll kiss this place good-bye.

In the whispering bushes
in and out I think for a little while,
In the whispering bushes,
talk to yourself,
sing a song until the winds come and join,
Soon you will be
In the whispering bushes.

--Ai Xiong, gr. 6

These are not kids who know the woods. Perhaps Jung was right; maybe our minds arrive with a species-level memory, complete with archetypes.

The awareness and joy of belonging is also a feature of kids' writing:


I strolled.
An occasional sea spray,
powdery white sand mingled with wind & water,
I became one with the scape,
danced on the line between surf and sand.
Further out I skipped,
glints off the water, a stirring inside me,
I leapt, let go of my self.
Up with me rose the silvery creatures,
the harmony of surf & wind joined with my spirit,
two dolphins dancing with me,
all colors and feelings released, effervescence
A wave rolled, closed in and washed me over, made my skin glitter.
The dolphins dove, I watched.
They took part of me and left parts of themselves.

--Dee Dee Budde, gr. 8


up in the sky
on a rock
over the big blue water
across the deep valley of trees
I stood tall and full, like a mast-head of
a special ship, one that was alive.
I felt the earth move
around my body as I lay sinking into its love,
satisfied by caresses the wind gave me freely

all day the sun felt warm
and I sat on the edge of the cliff
dangling my feet over the whole world
playing an imaginary flute, the music
around me, sun warm and the river below
twinkled and quivered, showing off
rainbow patterns in its waves and flow,
sparkling like a wet Milky Way.

--Jenny Prosser, gr. 10


And just perhaps, even as I bewail the use of lovely nature images to sell distasteful products on television, those images are waking the archetypes in children’s minds. Who knows? However we explain it, the use of nature images enables kids to speak fluently, accurately, and well. The connection is there; they sense the depth of their belonging.

Many naturalists and artists report a childhood experience of epiphany when they were deeply struck by the awareness that they were part of the enormous living whole. This heavily emotional realization of connection has been described by people worldwide.

Thomas Berry describes his:

The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. And we have this from our first awakening to the universe. There is one experience that has had a very deep influence on my life.

When I was about ten years old I saw a meadow and I saw it first in spring time in early May. How wonderful this is to live in the universe where there is a sun in the heavens; where there are so many wonderful creatures of Earth; where there is the song of the birds and the butterflies and the cicada in the evening. What is all this? Obviously, it’s not a collection of objects to be used. Obviously, it’s a world to be venerated. It’s a world to be communed with, to be present, to be delighted in, and together to have a certain experience that might be called ecstatic.

Such experiences can make people uncomfortable, especially in a society which denies Nature, and with it, our own deepest pulse. But this experience of mystical communion, a sort of epiphany, while wonderfully real, is only one of several paths to re-connection with Earth.

The process of making, or creating, using images of life is a powerful path.

Education can be such a path toward wholeness, but often is not, for information alone is never enough. Direct sensory experience is often what’s missing; experience of the body is what evokes emotion. Engage the heart, and the mind will follow.



We live embedded in Earth’s creative power. Earth’s creative force is ours, for we are one of Earth’s aspects.

Life is creative. Autopoesis is the process of self-organization, self-creation, that continually demonstrates the biosphere’s creativity. Living organisms are processes forever in the act of becoming new, and renewed. Biotic communities continuously evolve, change, adapt, emerge again. Change is the constant thrust and dynamism of the biosphere. Change in living systems is triggered by both by events external to the system and by the internal pressure to enlarge named by Vladimir Vernadsky as Life-Pressure (see Life-Force—not as elan vital but as an emergent property of the biosphere.)

Emergent properties of living systems, such as sustainability, exemplify nature’s creativity.  Consider the making and sharing of art an emergent property of the living systems called humans.

Recently in Western corporate culture, creativity has come to mean problem-solving, regarded as essentially cognitive. This “creativity” can be analyzed reductively into a set of techniques and implemented by training seminars. This seems a rather sad way to describe an ability of humans that has given us Shakespeare, gamelan, blues, netsuke and Bach—in short the whole interwoven tapestry of song and print, movement and fiber, metal and stone that is human art. Creating is a discovery process that engages every portion of our selves, body, sense, emotion, intuition, mind.


To see the universe in a grain of sand
and heaven in a wildflower
hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour          
         --William Blake, circa 1800

Or see a lifetime in a flower. Or in a mayfly. Blake’s leaps here from small to large embody an ancient, traditional way of seeing. While this way is undoubtedly as old as any chipped flint, for the past two thousand years or so it has been known as Microcosm/Macrocosm. The term names one of the tools of human intuition. Once a child intuits the large within the small, she has begun to become fully human.

When we accept that we are aware, sentient portions of Earth, one implication is that, analogically, a human is to biosphere as microcosm is to macrocosm.

Microcosm:macrocosm::human:biosphere, or

Microcosm is to macrocosm as a person is to the biosphere

The idea works like this: in the Microcosm, energies and patterns exist similar to those in the Macrocosm. Differences are largely matters of scale.  See the universe in a grain of sand, a lifetime in a flower. The Micro- predicts the Macro—they are coeval and to some extent, synonymous. The one mirrors the other. We have always been fascinated by things which seem intuitively “the same” even though vastly dissimilar in scale. The Whole is embodied in each of its parts.

So in this way, little is big and big is little, high can equal low and inside can be outside.  Paradox too can be an aid to thought.

The Microcosm/ Macrocosm concept receives validation from  surprising sources.

Recently, mathematics has described the fractal nature of much natural phenomena. Fractal geometry describes objects that are self-similar, or scale symmetric. This means that when such objects are magnified, their parts are seen to bear an exact resemblance to the whole, the likeness continuing with the parts of the parts and so on to infinity. Fractals are used especially in computer modeling of irregular patterns and structures in nature. Many topographic features of Earth are scale symmetric. The ‘irregular’ coastlines of Britain were the first such structures demonstrated to be fractal. The microcosm of headlands, bays and estuaries seen at, say, a thousand feet show the same pattern (including a much longer shoreline) at, say, ten thousand feet. So what appears to be chaotic and irregular is, in fact, predictable and regular.

The hologram provides another powerful validation of the idea. A hologram is recorded on a photographic plate. If you illuminate that plate properly with light (laser or recently, incident light), it becomes a 3D reproduction of what was recorded. If you cut that photographic plate into say, fifty pieces of different sizes, and correctly illuminate them, each will present the entire hologram again, in miniature but complete. What is truly amazing about holograms is not just their three-dimensionality, but that each point on the surface of that photographic plate contains the entire hologram. Our “common sense” balks at such a thought, but our ancient intuitions are affirmed. Microcosm/Macrocosm does help describe reality.

Yet another description of reality, that may open you to microcosm/macrocosm, rises from genetics. Eons of time are encapsulated within every gene inside every eukaryote cell. Every seed contains the history of life. 

So. A human being is a microcosm of the Biosphere’s macrocosm. This implies that when we humans create things, we are one aspect of Earth’s creativity. If this is true, and I am sure it is, then we must re-think the nature of art-making.




Micro-Ecology’s Mirror


1.Life is powered by a flow of energy from the sun


Energy flows from Earth and Mind and Other. Art-making is powered by flows of energizing images from the conscious and the unconscious mind, and by a flow of energy between self and Other.


2. Life’s Materials Continuously Cycle and
Recycle: Life Lives in Circles


The continual cycling of  remembered experience is the mind’s creative wellspring; we replay our lives.


3. We all Belong to the Whole: All lives are interwoven and mutually dependent.


Making art rounds the circle of self and unites the self with the biosphere.


4. All lives continuously transform: Being is becoming


Making and experiencing art transforms us into Other through empathy, identification, and play.


5. All lives seek Balance: Lives regulate themselves toward  homeostasis.


Making art restores balance, integrates and helps us heal.


6. All lives Interlive: Lives find ways to live with and within each other. Symbiotic cooperation is a basic pattern of life.


 Art-making is inevitably communal, a collaboration among artist, past artists, others, shared culture, and the shared unconscious.

Note Five:
On Flow and Transformation

Ecology describes:

(1) the flow and transformation of energy through the biosphere until its dissipation into space as heat--

(2) the flow and cycling of materials through living beings. Through photosynthesis in plants, algae and cyanobacteria, organic compounds are transformed from water and carbon dioxide into nutrients which then flow  transfer from life to life as organisms feed and breed and grow, and die back into the enormous pool of atoms that cycle endlessly into living bodies and back again. 

 “Flow” denotes process, which is central to any grasp of how life works. Our cultural bias, strongly rooted in Western languages, is to see ourselves as static, persistent beings traveling through time.

In fact, of course, we are movement, we are ever-changing processes for which memory and personality strive to persist. We are self-organizing patterns which must continuously replace our bodies/organs/tissues and our warmth by eating other living patterns. We are flows of energy and to our occasional chagrin, flows of the residue of our eating.

Ecology, then, has its flows, its rivers of energy and circling matter. So we can  perceive ourselves as physical flows of energy and matter (and more).

We bob for awhile like corks in a river of time, though unlike corks, we know that we will sink. We are sparks of Life’s Fire.

We know we will wink out.  This prompts us to make the transformation of experience that we call art.