Maintenance and Stewardship

The sight, the metaphor of a plant -- be it weed, tree, cactus or dandelion -- thriving through challenging circumstances such as a desert, the Arctic, or a craggy outcrop lacking apparent soil prompts awe at the will and randomness of nature.  However, when the same thing occurs to a carpet of concrete or asphalt, feelings are decidedly mixed and the will of that plant is regarded as a nuisance or pest.

Often, when encountering such a naturally occurring "blemish," the modern response is an intervention to facilitate or maintain preferred functions, appearances and efficiencies.  The crack in the asphalt gets paved over, the pesky weed snuffed out with pesticides.  This, however, provides only graphic, temporary relief.  Nature and time will remain undaunted and other blemishes, whether weeds in the concrete or some other nuisance that intrudes on an ideal, will inevitably emerge.  

Despite the constants of the cycles we know -- boom and bust, the four seasons, life and death or the fall of empires -- there remains confidence that individuals and societies can reshape environments or break these cycles to assert control on we strive to remake our environments will decay and degrade regardless of our beliefs in the weight, strength and supremacy of materials we have used to remake our surroundings. The next discovery or state of the art breakthrough will let us shed the shackles of those cycles and ascend to a sustainable ease.  Whether relying on the weight of concrete or the strength of iron and steel, we still loathe to encounter evidence that time leaves its mark.  We continue to deploy our technologies and will in battle against time and change.  Against reality.

Whatever it is we use to makeover our environment, whether a brute slab of asphalt, a glimmering tower to look upon and work in, a prestigious high tech car to get to that tower, they embody the desire to distance ourselves from the natural environment.  This is obvious, but apart from the convenience that comes with creating that distance or that smoother, less stressful movement without the hindrance of the unexpected, there is a deliberate commitment to direct our energies toward the maintenance of a synthetic environment rather than the stewardship of the natural environment.

But why?

In his novel, The Reserve Russell Banks uses the phrase "mutual parasitism" to talk about the dynamic between levels of society, but it is an apt term for our drift away from stewardship toward maintenance.  Despite however open and accepting we may claim to be to the forces of change and the power of time, we resist them and consider them challenges, if not parasites.  The desiccation or mould -- to name but two things -- that can afflict our environment with the passage of time are realities that we strive to fend off and eradicate.  There are countless ways that we have deployed technology to isolate ourselves from the progress of time and change.  The maintenance is apparent in the ways that we try to sustain systems that continue our isolation from our environments and reality as well rather than getting off this maintenance treadmill in favour of a more synergistic acknowledgement of our surroundings and our relationship to them.

Apart from our relationship with the environment and with the forces of time and change will exert their influence regardless of our interventions, there is the way we regard one another. One thing that has become evident throughout our experience with COVID-19 is that the sense of community that held our societies together through previous challenges have frayed and failed us. The internet and social media have given many the delusion of community and common mindset when the fact is that they have given a false legitimacy to assumptions about our world and our understandings of ourselves and our commitments to one another that have exacerbated the crisis and fostered a pessimism about whether or not people are going to pull together to support one another and sustain broad communities.

Ideally a simple collapse of an internet server would prove to some quarter how isolated and out of touch their beliefs are, but there continue to be people who assert that certain realities are untrue or the product of vast conspiracies. No matter how much data, no matter how compelling the stories that have been offered to counter the false beliefs that have been cultivated by those who, in reality, ultimately want to maintain our parasitic relationship with our environment and with one another, rather than acknowledge the benefits and responsibilities of stewardship.

The mutual parasitism that Banks cited within the context of social dynamics is undeniable today.  That parasitism prompts us to make value judgments about countless things that are part of our lives, not to mention the people who challenge us with differing perspectives and needs.  We also assume that there is an other that is the parasite and that in one way or another, we are above that for reasons that we might be quick to .  The harsh reality is that the majority of us are parasites on our environment rather than stewards.  We are quick to label, fend off and derogate time, change and people that inconvenience us, while overlooking and denying our own impact on our surroundings.  All too often, as the extravagance of the transition to electric cars demonstrates, we graphically demonstrate a preference for maintaining the status quo over the more synergistic (and sustainable) stewardship of our communities and environment.  Accepting the gradual degradation that occurs with the passage of time, with the cycling through the seasons should not be that challenging.  Instead, however, we look for ways to maintain massive infrastructures even as they prove to be  precarious than solid.

Throughout our society's pursuit of technological solutions that prove to be only so many thumbs in the dam, we strive for a perfection or impermeability that proves to fail time and again.  Instead of this pursuit, the openness and conscious, ongoing stewardship of our environment, our relationships and our communities must take precedence.  This change of mindset would require us to put more sweat equity into our well-being rather than relying on the glittering infusions of technology that never last as long as promised.  

The investment of sweat equity to adopt a more custodial approach would better facilitate our ability to  personally and collectively survive. We have a chance to establish the habits to better protect and steward the things that are essential to our well-being: our environment, our community and our sanity as well.  Yes, we would have thorny conversations that we are eager to isolate ourselves from. This option to disengage, to avoid the paradoxes in conversations about freedoms, is akin to our desire to cocoon ourselves in carapaces that promise to isolate us from disagreement, change, the passage of time.  They serve only so well and only for so long.  Inevitably, nature emerges with the lessons that we need to glean from it.  Our modern world only offers false, fleeting comfort.  It is far more beneficial for us to immerse ourselves in the calm wisdom of the fractals and cycles of our natural world. Connecting to those fundamental natural realities is grounding, enlightening and comforting. 

Engaging with our environment and surroundings in a manner that makes us stewards and custodians aspiring to synergize with the entirety of our environment rather than following procedures and steps that lead to a more modular and dis-integrated lifestyle makes more sense.  We take our share of the responsibilities that are available to us rather than assuming that the division of labour is such that we are spared certain tasks and we are, in turn, posed the challenge of doing desk work and then mounting a cardio machine for the appropriate exertion that our mind and body needs to make us whole.  It is in that self-imposed modularity of life that we find ourselves maintaining and perhaps trapped in the beliefs we hold rather than aligning ourselves with truths that we would like to deny because of the mortality and impermanence that we would like to fend off.

As we come through the COVID era and look to rebuild our individual lives and try to reestablish our connections to friends, community and our environment it will be necessary to do each of these with a desire and willingness to risk the intimacy and attentiveness that will prompt us to be stewards, willing to give and serve in ways that restore the wholeness and integrity of people and things we come to hold dear and appreciate for the poignancy of their impermanence and their latent tenacity.


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