Volume 12: Editor’s Note — Resilience

Sturm und Drang
by Debra Mackey, editor

“Rejoice! The powers of nature are within our
compass, the storm is part of our biology!”
—E. O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

Sometimes you can learn a lot about a word such as “resilience” just by having fun with it. In her essay “Wildfire Summer,” contributor Ann Zwinger observes that “we all probably have a common idea of what we mean when we speak the word.” But what do we hear when we speak it? Try saying it out loud. It flows off the tongue like an underground stream emerging into daylight. The silky sounds seem to pull you along toward something promising and good. Try it again, but this time drop the timbre of your voice down a notch and stretch out the syllables. Re-sil-i-ence. Does it sound ominous, like the rumble of not-too-distant thunder?

I would guess that for most of us, our first thoughts on hearing the word are of the daylighting stream variety. On days when the news seems particularly desperate, I take comfort in the belief that systems and species and individuals can persist and survive. Resilience lies at the heart of ecological and social optimism and we can all use more of that.

Hearing the thunder in “resilience” takes more effort, but it is only through the thunder that the true wildness in resilience reveals itself. Resilience is the child of Storm — and not just passing sprinkles, but heavy turbulence that rips apart and rearranges. Most of the time, things sort themselves out in the aftermath, although we might argue about whether or not we like the new design. But sometimes, especially if the storms are severe enough, things don’t sort themselves out — they shrivel up and blow away. The hard fact is that storms are inevitable; resilience is just a possibility.

As environmental practitioners, we have a choice: We can let this sobering reality be one more thing to feel overwhelmed by or we can embrace the storm and get on with the business of giving resilience its best shot. Accepting that the occasional twister will touch down in my life keeps me on my toes.

I know I can’t prevent them, but I can prepare myself and prepare to help others, too, by recognizing the warning signs, taking inventory of the resources available to me, making contingency plans, and having an emergency tool kit handy. Like the butterfly in Mara Glatzel’s poem “Red,” we all “covet security” but it’s the disturbances in life that uncover the “glittering secret” we have tucked away, just in case.

What does it take to move resilience from a possibility to a probable outcome? First and foremost, it needs a place to be, a place where the basic conditions or survival are met, where connections and relationships can thrive and, importantly, where baselines can be established so that when disturbances occur, and they surely will, there is a place to return to and begin again. This is as true for people as it is for wood frogs and desert tortoises, although all beings come to those places and connect in their own unique ways. Poet Alison Deming travels through the Sonoran Desert and finds such a place “Under the Influence of Ironwoods,” where the ancient trees cast “the blue-green haze of their nurture, each one a tangled mess of life.” For essayist Bernd Heinrich’s wood frogs, a vernal pond or a backhoe track will do. For Heinrich’s children, it’s wherever the wood frogs are and, later, it will be the place in their hearts and minds that holds the memory of the way a wood frog smells and feels on a spring day.

Resilience also requires time. It does not spring forth from the Storm full blown, like a Greek demi-god. From an ecological perspective, resilience can only be measured over long time horizons. It is exactly this quality of resilience that creates problems for environmental engineers and conservation biologists as they tackle restoration issues. We might try to pin resilience down to here or there, now or then, but resilience is too slippery for that. In “The Arrow of Biological Time,” John Tallmadge notes that succession in natural systems “proceeds over many generations as each organism single-mindedly pursues its own life-way, [it] transcends the memory and awareness of each individual. It may be thought of, therefore, as an unconscious process.” He concludes that “biological time is all history, all story.” If this is so, then resilience does not exist at a point but rather on a continuum, like the tide Deming observes “On Sagadahoc Bay,” which “being movement, remains itself forever.”

When faced with dramatic changes, all beings instinctively look to the past to find a way to negotiate the future. Each individual, species, and community holds the key to resilience within its own history. In “Ladybug Hill,” Tim Otter ponders the cyclical migration of ladybugs and wonders how the memory of a specific place is passed on through multiple generations. It may seem to us that the process is unconscious but perhaps, as Otter suggests, that is because we do not share their “umvelt” — we do not perceive the world as a ladybug might. Senses are critical to unlocking the doors of memory; sight, sound, smell, and touch all emerge as main characters in the poems, stories, and images that constitute this issue.

While natural systems might appear to access memory through unconscious processes, social systems do not. Human memories do not always transcend the individual; they can be made and lost in one lifetime. We must make a conscious effort to ensure that our memories live on to illuminate the way to resilience for future generations. If one key to resilience lies in memory, then it is our storytellers — the poets, artists, singers of song, and scientists, too — who are the keepers of that key.

It’s no coincidence that many of the storytellers in this issue of Whole Terrain find themselves looking backward as they struggle to embrace the storm and survey their own pathways to resilience. Resilience isn’t about dwelling in the past, to be sure; it’s about learning from it so that we can move on after the storm has passed. Essayist Jonathan Schach consciously explores the scents of his childhood, only to uncover disturbing connections that challenge his ideas about the nature of landscape and, ultimately, bring him to a deeper, more complex understanding of his work as an environmental educator.

In “Seeing Through the Changes,” Fred Taylor flies back and forth through time, plucking the seeds of resilience from a lifetime of memories. Leah Majofis reaches back even further and draws strength from the stories of her immigrant family, “each one a lesson about when to laugh, when to cry, and how to get along in the world.”

Stories are powerful tools for navigating stormy times — they pull us out of the present into the realm of the continuum, giving resilience the time and space it needs. But we do not live in a vacuum of our own awareness. Our biology extends into the community of all beings and true resilience lies in our ability to forge connections with others. “The more isolated you are, the less likely you are to succeed,” says activist Willie Fontenot. We need to range beyond our own living rooms and seek out others who have weathered similar storms and survived them. Resilience, it turns out, needs company. Happily, that company is not restricted to our own species. Powerful models of resilience are all around us, as Jean Linville’s arresting photographs of disturbed trees show. We have only to open our senses and our hearts to find them.

Ultimately, we all have to come to our own understanding of what resilience is and how it plays out in our lives and the lives of those around us. For me, it is a daylighting stream made possible by deep upheaval; something I want to celebrate, nurture, share, and splash around in, while still keeping a weather eye on the horizon. I hope that as you explore this issue of Whole Terrain you will rejoice in both the light and the darkness, come away with some new ideas for your emergency tool kit, and feel better prepared to embrace the storm. It is, after all, part of our biology.