Eric Higgs, Nature by Design

It's been kind of like grad school, the last little while. One of the things that I loved about PhD work at the U of Alberta at the time - as well as when I look back at it now - was that I could almost feel the shape of my brain changing as I read things that stretched it. Rushdie's novels, Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, Jonathan Bate's Romantic Ecology, and who knows what all: my only responsibility was to learn more, and to learn it independently. I doubted my place in the discipline, wondered whether I was doing The Right Thing, but I loved the depth that I was encouraged to work in.

I teach so much now, and have so many of the other usual human obligations (most of them welcome), that it's rare I get to achieve that kind of depth again - and when I do achieve it, it's always a case of my having stolen time and energy from something else, something deserving of all that stolen time and energy.

Eric Higgs' Nature by Design: People, Natural Process, and Ecological Restoration took me back to grad school, and it feels like one of the most important books I'll read for a long time. I had to start walking to school again, just so I could have an extra 20 minutes of reading time every morning as I stumbled along suburban sidewalks!

Higgs' conception of "focal practice" (a way of taking action that positively focuses external energies and internal perception, if I might mangle a paraphrase) names what I keep wanting to do in my life, in all spheres of my life, with at best mixed success - I'd like to say it's what I try to do, but I'm nowhere near being able to make that claim. After reading this book I'm in no danger of abandoning my job and life, far from it, but I closed this book with an awareness of what rides on all our efforts to live more honestly, more fully, more openly. And I've got to make more room for activist, outdoorsy, agricultural activities. My primary personal and leisure activity, reading, isn't good enough - though I may not do enough of that, either.

I've learned a lot from Nature by Design, and more importantly I've found a lot of threads I'm going to have to spend time pursuing. In particular, I'd heard of Albert Borgmann, but I need to read his philosophic work in detail. A sample of Borgmann's ideas, from among the epigraphs to Higgs' important sixth chapter "Denaturing Restoration":

"The advanced technological way of life is usually seen as rich in styles and opportunities, pregnant with radical innovations, and open to a promising future. The problems that beset technological societies are thought to be extrinsic to technology; they stem, supposedly, from political indecision, social injustice, or environmental constraints. I consider this a serious misreading of our situation. I propose to show that there is a characteristic and constraining pattern to the entire fabric of our lives."(Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life)
Good stuff, right? Of course, I'm blogging that I need to separate myself from technology. I need to think hard about this. Almost every night after my daughter goes to bed, I flip open the laptop, and log into everything: email at two universities, personal email, Moodle, Yammer, Twitter, plus the blogs (both this one and a professional collective one for work). And there are so many other things I'd rather be doing, that I need to be doing, that my daughter and her future need me to be doing. With luck, Eric Higgs' book and Albert Borgmann will help me find my way there more often.

Too melodramatic? Not with the sudden conversion of McMansions into the new slums; with the mainstreaming of peak oil's consequences, reminiscent of WW2's impact on car production in North America (from 3.8 million civilian vehicles in 1941, to 143 in 1943); with the avowedly non-violent calling publicly for what sounds a lot like violence.


Anonymous said…
Good post, Richard. I'll look for this book. I think the search for integration, of how we might bring together the threads of our lives in a meaningful way, is a challenge for most of us.
Theresa K.
richard said…
I know you're an omnivorous enough reader that it won't faze you, Theresa, but it's not an easy book: distinctly academic, even if it's in the best sense of the word. Higgs is a philosopher who's come to ecological restoration, and who practices in both disciplines, so his writing can be thorny but also seriously rewarding.
John Mutford said…
I want to read this book, but I'm also afraid. What if it cures me?
richard said…
Um, what might it cure you of, John?

And I'm sorry for missing this comment in moderation - I thought Blogger would send me a note that there was a comment in the queue!

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