In browsing through a book I brought home from the library (In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature, John Whitfield), I came across an interesting paragraph in a subsection called “Job Opportunities”. It said nothing new--basically that we evolve to occupy niches--but it said it in a novel way, and it’s tickling something in my mind that I haven’t quite been able to reach.
In the Homage, Hutchinson suggested that one explanation for the number of different species lay in the range of possible biological professions and addresses. Belonging to a species is like having a job: it’s a specialized way of making a living, and an evolutionary choice that closes off other employment options. By becoming excellent at one way of life, through adaptation, animals and plants become inept at others. You would no more set a sheep to catch a rabbit than you would employ a plumber to cut your hair. Tropical orchids would struggle on the tundra. Cows are good at digesting grass, bad at ant eating; pangolins, vice versa. Species divide up resources, and each species can exploit some so well that it can monopolize them. But due to life’s ubiquitous trade-offs, the ability to hog some resources comes at the cost of being able to use all of them, leaving other jobs vacant. If all organisms use energy in the same way, maybe diversity reflects the number of different ways to get it.
There’s something there about the way we divide up resources--I’m not sure what it is. Somehow it helps me see the whole pattern, to see all of us as functioning parts of one organism. We each contribute some function, something that helps the organism as a whole remain healthy. We fill out the organism, our niches rubbing up against each other, creating a seamless whole, and a web of interconnectivity. To dissect any part of it is to wound the whole organism. Of course, the organism has a significant ability to self-heal; excise an occupant of one niche and something else will usually rush in to fill the void.
Now, the troubling thing is, we humans have removed ourselves from the earth’s ecosystems (as if such a thing is really possible)! What niches do we fill? Well, it seems like we’re trying to fill every niche. We want to be the predator of just about everything.
I like the author’s choice of the employment metaphor. Especially because I’ve been thinking about the issue of right livelihood for myself. Back in Pennsylvania I know that right livelihood could easily include either woodworking or writing (or both). The woodlands of Pennsylvania spawned me; it seems fitting that wood be the resource I monopolize (in a sustainable way of course). If I get into woodworking, I want to get most of the wood for my own land or reclaim it from old buildings. If I wrote I would want my publisher to source the paper from environmentally responsible mills (if such a thing exists)! Here in Colorado though I’m still all wishy-washy about what right livelihood would be for me.
As far as the personality of this place--it’s dry as opposed to Pennsylvania’s lush abundance. Therefore life forms here seem to be much more reserved in their self-expression. The Pennsylvania land is sensuous; here the land seems more interested in practicalities. In Pennsylvania the people may be poor, but their yards and properties always seem to be meticulously and beautifully maintained. Here, people are poor and trashy--letting weeds and junk take over. In Pennsylvania people seem to be more crafty and artsy and innovative. Here people are conservative and don’t take risks or try new things very easily. I think a drought-prone area will always foster conservatism. It just isn’t safe to expend energy on anything but the tried-and-true. The positive thing about here is the slower tempo--it let’s me get in touch with larger cycles of time. Things change very slowly here, whereas in Pennsylvania change is visible. To see how the forest is reclaiming Mr. Miller’s farm each time I go home is amazing!
So in a dry, dusty, flat, conservative place, what could I give birth to? You have big sky and big weather here. Maybe it’s a place for big ideas and seeing big pictures? But how do I actually make a living from that? Whatever I find to do here, I’m sure it won’t be showy. It’ll have to be understated yet tenacious. And it’ll need to have some practical application--it can’t simply be a bunch of lofty ideas.
Oh, the other thing about this place--it’s a grounded place. Compared to Boulder especially, which was so flighty and air-headed (albeit in a spiritual way).