We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.
― Neil deGrasse Tyson
Every late August /early September it comes, whether I like it or not.
As soon as the wind shifts, without any invitation at all.
In fact, when I resist or forget that it is arriving, it bursts in a rage, like some slighted and pissed of fairy-witch that spits curses, wreaks havoc, and grinds the whole works to a stop.
When I just remember to behave with grace when it knocks it becomes a respectful, polite, if somewhat impinging guest who is aware that their presence is inconvenient, and unavoidably disruptive, and their scheduled stay just a little too long.
When I am attuned, prepared and accepting, it brings with it quiet pleasures and relief.
As the earth under my feet cools, and draws the heat out through the bottom of my feet, my sap no longer expands, but contracts, retreating from my extremities redirecting itself down, down my trunk traveling from the tips to the roots.
There was a time when I would have had no word for it other than “depression” – perhaps it was at the time, and could be again – maybe there were even a few seasons of my life -especially when I stubbornly refused to heed the signs or adjust my behavior- when it could have met the official diagnostic criteria.
Although I no longer think of it that way, not at all.
Now, with many years of practice, and deep listening to myself and the world around me, I know it is my body’s response to the season changing. It is time to start to pull my attention inward and conserve my energies again. To shift the rhythm of my household from spontaneous, open-armed outdoor adventurousness to books, indoor art projects, and homework at the kitchen table. To warm up my diet. To carry a light sweatshirt on my morning run. To eat less raw, cold food. To give up the iced coffees of summer. To start cooking again. To put cinnamon on my oatmeal, and to wear closed shoes on my feet. To find my light cotton scarves, to make sure my kids have windbreakers handy, and for us all to come in from outdoors a little earlier each day. To get the garden, and the rest of us, ready for a colder season.
The green drains from the leaves, the downward migration begins.
Everything turns, and begins to head south when summer is over.
Even the monarch butterflies
Why should I be exempt?
Why should you?
Living in NYC it is shockingly easy to forget that we live in a larger world, that we are among the animals on the planet, that we are inextricable from the natural world.
Our clocks, and TVs, computer screens and lightbulbs, our subways and taxis and over-air-conditioned workplaces and shops, the cement and brick and glass and steel horizons and the meticulously groomed parks help us forget our instinctive selves and our place in this world.
We cannot easily wade in the rivers, climb trees, we do not rake our lawns – we must schedule long car trips out of the city to see the leaves turn. We see only a few stars faintly, and the moon is more often than not, hiding behind a building. Windows look out on other windows.
Right now there is a storm raging outside, the winds are gusting up to 50 miles per hour, but out my office window you would never know it. Nothing moves. If I look long and closely, I see a pot of dead decorative tall grass bending on the sun-deck of the condo a few buildings over, only a very thin slice of the river far off and barely visible between skyscrapers shows some white caps on the waves.
But I have seen the Monarch butterflies – every single day for the past two weeks – but certainly not today in this wind – I have seen them, in purposive, directional flight, past my office window on the top of a Wall Street skyscraper. One at a time, flying by every couple of hours, migrating like birds, to their winter roost in Mexico.
The Eastern monarch migration is endangered, and monarch numbers dwindling. Stateside, municipalities mow highway medians covered with milkweed – which feed and sustain monarch breeding – to improve highway safety. Corn farming uses pesticides – which kill caterpillars – to insure sufficient crop yield. The local resident loggers in Mexico facing overwhelming poverty, cut down trees – that millions of butterflies route to, and roost in – selling lumber to feed their families.
Neither are the butterflies safe from the measurable effects of climate change: drought, dehydration, forest fires, increasingly severe storms.
And neither are we.
The clients who come to see me have heard many such stories, if not this one, then others. The plight of the distant polar bears, the poaching of elephants, the ever growing list of extinct and endangered species. The short-term, immediate desperate human demand for food, for folk medicine, for oil, for energy for money, for stuff, for power that makes us a danger to the natural order, and corrective natural phenomenon a danger to us as well.
The battle, a false dualism, appears to set human needs against the natural world. An intricate and complex interconnectedness has created a scenario that leaves all parties, residents and butterflies, in insufficiency.
This is the dark side of the archetype of Interconnectedness:
Nothing is without its shadow.
Every action has its reaction.
Everything we do can fuck something else up.
Acts of creation are usually reserved for gods and poets.
But humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how.
To plant a pine for example, one need neither be god nor poet;
one need only own a good shovel.
For one species to mourn another is a new thing under the sun.
~ Aldo Leopold
as quoted in Monarch Butterflies, The Last Migration, by Benjamin Vogt
All archetypes are bivalent, and two-faced.
Every gesture we make has the power to heal something too.
What often looks terrible can be essential and transformative.
And what looks good and clean and perfect will eventually reveal a darker under-belly.
If we were to live with awareness that we are of the earth and effected by it, and that we also have a significant effect up on the world – what would change?
Many shut down such questions down, dismissing the dilemma entirely, defensively certain that none of it matters anyway.
Some live in constant fear about coming catastrophes. Some are paralyzed with hopelessness.
Some believe, self-righteously, that they know as a point of fact, the “best choices” to make, the one right and true and obvious answer.
Others are just trying to tolerate the questions.
I ask myself what are my responsibilities and capacities as a psychotherapist in the face of it all.
Social workers emphasize the importance of understanding clients as “persons in environments” and as therapists, we are further trained to assess our client’s (and our own) capacity for healthy relatedness and ability to empathize with others. We try to discern and describe attachment styles and strengths. We take note of how well impulses are contained, if gratification can be delayed, and the development, or lack of judgement as well as short and long term reasoning. We determine the of severity of symptoms, orientation to reality, rigidity and effectiveness of defenses. All of these assessments are based, in large part, on our proximal environment of human relationships and structures, particularly co-workers, immediate friends and family.
But perhaps we are also called to asses the larger circles of interpersonal functioning beyond the immediate tribe and social environments, widening to include our interconnections to the much larger communities we dwell within: the local, regional and global community, our immediate habitat, region and ecosystem.
Insurance companies do not require us to assess the sense of relatedness and relationship to the planet itself. Our training rarely helps us figure out how much our client may or may not feel themselves to be a indivisible part of the natural world, or how divorced they may be from understanding their integral and entwined position among plants, oceans, animals, weather, bugs, bears, bats, clouds, soil, light and climate. How aware are we of the fact that our individual beings, and our supposedly self-determined fates remain absolutely inseparable from each other and the rest of the creatures, minerals and vegetables and vapors swirling around on this blue dot?
Here is what I do know: we are rarely destroyed, but usually strengthened by facing our fears and integrating our shadows, both personally and collectively.
As psychotherapists it has always been our obligation to promote our clients awareness of themselves in a larger environment, and deepen their contact with strengthening realities, even if approaching reality is uncomfortable or difficult.
As clients, we are called to face and accept what we do not want to know about ourselves.
Jesus sat under the sky on the hot desert sands to face down his shadow, Buddha sat under the Bohdi tree, with a finger touching the earth. Fairy tale heroes and heroines must commonly align themselves with animals of the forest, and draw on the support of flora and fauna to conquer the witches and demons that threaten them. The desert, the tree, and the animals guide them into deeper contact with themselves-as-part-of-the-larger-world, and therefore, more in touch with themselves, and more in touch with the world.
When we allow ourselves to wonder about what it means for us to be absolutely intertwined and interdependent upon the natural world at this point in history, we may feel angry or impotent, afraid, overwhelmed, anxious about what is to come, disoriented about how to proceed when our culture produces so many diversions, distractions and explicit minimization and misinformation.
Raised in captivity in labs, experimentally living under controlled temperatures, sheltered from the wind, the sun, the rains, adapted to prolonged artificial lighting, or exposed to electromagnetism the monarchs also become lost and disoriented. When they are released during the migratory season they scatter in random directions.
How do the wild monarchs find their over-wintering trees? They have no cognitive knowledge of how the hell to get to Mexico. They are two or three butterfly generations away from the tree where their grandmothers wintered before laying spring eggs.
Like us, they are heading somewhere they have never been before.
But somehow they do know. Or they figure it out.
They feel the cold slowing the beat of their wings. Too cool, and they are paralyzed, frozen. Too hot and they dehydrate. They fly just enough toward the sun, to the south, toward conditions that allow them to keep moving, that maximize their strengths, and ultimately to the roosts that support the survival of their species and the lives of their offspring.
Like the Fisher King who must heal his own wound before his land and grounds will be fertile again, our work will begin by accepting that we hold many illusory beliefs about ourselves as entirely autonomous and self-determining, and by addressing our own estrangement from ourselves, and the truth of our essential, undeniable interdependent nature.
Some how, monarchs are able, with much smaller brains than ours, to feel their own bodies, to read the weather and to instinctively feel where they are and where they are headed and how they should respond to the earth itself.
They will start the trip all alone, heeding the warnings of colder realities. They glide and soar and flap toward the sun, and catch thermal winds that warm and animate them, they follow a circular and indirect route. In time, those that survive and are not eaten or blown off course will gather in a flocks – or more properly a rabble of butterflies. The rabble will increases in size until they are in the hundreds of thousand in flight together. As they near their destination millions upon millions of them will soar together, they will stop traffic, and darken the skies.
But for now, I sit in my office and watch for them – one at a time, caught in updrafts, swirling through thermals, sometimes switching directions and then switching back, undaunted and too small to be afraid of what lies ahead or to dread the arduousness of the long and treacherous journey, each slowly, steadily finding their way to where they are meant to be.
copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford
Books that informed me in writing and for more reading:
Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly
by Sue Halpern
Monarch Butterflies: The Last Migration
by Benjamin Vogt
Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy
by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone
The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
by Alan Watts