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Essays in Ecology

Mama Woodchuck and
the Deep Image

by John Caddy


One morning early I watched big Mama Woodchuck graze. I knew her already; she had raised five young in the woodpile back of the house, and she was impressively large. What follows is more important to me because I “knew” this creature already, and had for some time acknowledged her as a sort of family member, or, better put, as a fellow inhabitant of this particular home place.

It’s a good place for a woodchuck, I think, with good water and a great variety of green and growing things, with many berries toward Fall. And a good place for me. I watched her graze for some time in early light (woodchucks tend to be crepuscular in their feeding) and did not see what I had expected, although ‘expected’ is too definite a word. What I saw was a twenty-five pound (or so) animal moving slowly along the edge where our little patch of lawn surrenders to the wild, where growth is lavish, I suppose because of all the light available at such an edge.

As she moved along, she neatly cropped a leaf here, a leaf there, a taste here, a taste there. She grazed, or browsed, rather like a whitetailed deer, a bit of this, a bit of that. She sat up on her haunches now and then, like a dog, to reach up with her forepaws and pull a leaf to her mouth. What surprised me, as a longtime gardener who has at times thought of woodchucks as only animate appetites devouring my vegetables, was realizing that she was not eating all of any plant. Not only not all, but in most cases just one leaf. When I went out to look after she’d moved on, I was struck by how much was left uneaten. It was hard to tell where she had taken a leaf.

I suppose my human bias has been that if a natural creature likes to eat a thing, it will, like a human child, devour that thing entirely—eat the whole jar of cookies. What I saw instead was what at first glance looked like inefficient feeding. Surely, if looked at from the standpoint of calories expended measured against calories gained, her almost casual grazing looks a bit disfunctional. If only she had a mind! If only she behaved as beasts are supposed to behave! (Why didn’t she take a short-term profit and get out?) But natural creatures are neither human children nor greedy human adults, and neither are they simple.

What I was looking at as I watched Mama Woodchuck browse was some millions of years of experience at work.

Let me describe the result of her brief browsing along the edge of my back yard:

About forty feet browsed in about fifteen minutes, with small forays beyond the edge into the brush.
As near as I could tell, she ate parts of about fifty plants of perhaps ten species; she foraged down a long salad bar.

No plant was badly damaged. All could regrow the leaves that had been browsed.

When events fail to meet our expectations, we often ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?” But there was no wrongness here. Instead, it felt powerfully correct. So with Mama Woodchuck’s browsing I am compelled instead to ask, “What’s right with this picture?” What is right is this:

Her browsing was nondestructive. As a result
the plants she browsed today she could browse again in a few days or weeks, and browse tender new growth.
This woodchuck and these plants were living out a very long learning that allowed both parties to survive. There is an important mutualism here.
Mama Woodchuck was demonstrating high intelligence.

If you balk at my labeling the behavior of a large rodent “intelligent,” I will say with more certainty and appropriateness, that the ecosystem or local biome was demonstrating high intelligence.

Intelligence is often defined as the ability to succeed in your habitat, to manipulate the elements of your habitat to meet your own needs over time, while maintaining that habitat. By this definition, Mama Woodchuck is undeniably intelligent. But this definition is neither accurate nor useful.

To accurately perceive what was going on here, Mama Woodchuck must not be singled out and separated from the system she is part of. Such separation is part of the pretense of objectivity that we’ve inherited from reductionist science. Analytic strategies of separation and isolation are powerful barriers to understanding any system. Instead of revealing meaning, they distort it. To say that Mama Woodchuck was demonstrating high intelligence ignores a great deal.

Instead we must think in terms of synthesis and wholeness. The Whole, when we’re talking about living systems, is always enormously complex , and consists of not only each identifiable part in the whole (each plant, each mammal, each insect, each fungus, each protozoan, each bacterium!) but also of each relationship among all of these living things (each feeding relationship, each growth strategy, each symbiosis, each niche, etc.). Obviously, it is very hard to study such an enormously complex whole. The Whole is the context, and without context our understanding is going to be narrow and incomplete.

So what tools for understanding are left? If analysis will only distort and reduce, and if synthesis is so complex it is beyond our abilities, we can turn to a thinking tool as old as any chipped flint, the twinned concepts of Microcosm and Macrocosm.

The idea works like this: in the Microcosm, the same energies and patterns exist as in the Macrocosm. Differences are only a matter of scale. The Microcosm can be used to predict the Macrocosm. The one mirrors the other. So in a way, little is big and big is little, high = low and inside is outside. Paradox too is an aid to thought. The same energies that power the atom with its spinning electrons power the whirling of the solar system. The Whole is embodied in each of its parts.

Say our present Microcosm is my back yard, and our Macrocosm is the Biosphere as a whole (all the life on Earth, plus the places it lives, plus the materials it uses). So rather than isolate Mama Woodchuck from her complex Whole and call her separately intelligent, we can recognize the intelligence of this Microcosm, and through that recognition, begin to perceive the grand intelligence of the Macrocosm, the Biosphere. So we humans, as parts of this enormous Biosphere, live within intelligence.

Wow. We live within intelligence.

With intelligence, intention is irrelevant. The proof is in the pudding.
Mama Woodchuck eats very well; the plants she browses also feed well in all that yard-edge light.

Biologists teach us of co-evolution, which is the astonishing process of life forms evolving simultaneously toward the same end, a kind of slow mutualism. Co-evolution is quite common, and the standard set of examples is the huge variety of insect–flower pairings which culminate with the insect being fed and the flower pollinated. What makes the co–evolution certain is that many of these flowers have evolved flower structures which can only be entered and fed from by one kind of insect whose body, in turn, is shaped to the flower’s shape. The insect evolved toward the flower. The flower evolved toward the insect. Both things happened at the same time. They fit each other. This co-evolution is an example of cooperation as a fundamental life–principle.

The various adaptations Mama Woodchuck made over the past millions of years, combined with the herbaceous adaptations of her plant community over the same time, surely are a kind of co-evolution.

The Whole is embodied in each of its parts. Mama Woodchuck’s browsing strategy beautifully encapsulates one of humanity’s proudest philosophical themes, that of the Golden Mean. Or as Sir William Temple put it “Temperance in all things.” Her ability to succeed with a feeding strategy that our species abandoned long ago should tell us something.

From physics we learn that everything in the universe seems to be made from the primordial materials born in stellar explosions. We also learn in quantum mechanics that the nature of “reality” is inherently unpredictable, that at the sub-atomic scale particles become wavicles and vice versa in unpredictable ways. This suggests that process or flux is the basic mode of the universe, and further, that everything is connected not only by origin but also by the way things go about being.

From ecology we learn that everything on Earth is connected to everything else, through bonds of interdependency—everything depending upon the energy of the sun. Everything is process-in-process; change is continuous.

In writing and the other arts, everything is potentially synonymous with everything. The meaning here is not simply metaphorical. This statement is literally true.

So where am I going with this?

If the Whole, like a hologram image, or like the fractal geometry of seashores, is indeed embodied in each of its parts, then the powerful poetic image can also “embody” the essence of the Whole.

I am connecting the Microcosm-Macrocosm concept to the deep image which is often the seed and flower of art. If everything inside the Microcosm implies and in a sense contains and reflects the Macrocosm, then an image from the Microcosm of the artist’s mind can literally “contain” the essence of the Macrocosm.

This is no news to artists—artists and mystics have always recognized the revelatory nature of deeply perceived images.

So the deep image which comes floating up out of the microcosm of the human mind (from the inner ecology, if you will), is both a reflection and a predictor of the macrocosm (the outer ecology or biosphere).

Mama Woodchuck, who innocently browsed the edge of my yard one morning, has become for me (and perhaps for you) a powerful image of the biosphere’s essentially cooperative nature.

Mama Woodchuck smiles my face