Connecting the ecologies: micro-macrocosm awareness and patterns that nurture the creative spirit

This piece originally appeared in Plant Healer Magazine. Forgive its length; the subject focuses on spirit sickness and how, often by using herbal medicine techniques, we can begin to recognize how to fill some of the voids we feel as we travel through our modern lives.

Culture has powerful, and often unseen, consequences. We are all steeped in our cultures: we make assumptions, engage in behavior, and even form opinions on ethics and beauty based on the culture we inhabit. It might be tempting to think that we retain individual control over every aspect of our lives, but this is not the case: where we are born, the halls in which we walk our daily lives, shape us almost as much as any conscious choice we make. Our choices are, in fact, constrained by our cultures: think of something as simple as clothing or food to get a sense of this.
In Western culture we’ve been seeing some interesting threads over the last few decades. There are obvious pieces, like the dietary choices and approaches to food processing, which have become pervasive and are spreading globally. But there are also more subtle pieces, linked to mood, mental health, and spirit, that are less discussed but nevertheless important pieces of our culture. Prescriptions for mood-altering medications have been increasing for some time. Opioids – prescribed for pain, but abused for other reasons – are pervasive. Overall, a combination of escapism (through media, chronic alteration of mental states, or a literal reframing of reality) and an obsession with material gain seem to be important drivers of Western culture today. Our appetite seems, at times, insatiable. 
At the same time, there are other threads too. Through popular fantasy, and reflected in an increasing interest in what is magical, wild, or more generally “green”, people seem to be drawn towards that which is unknown, powerful, and somehow linked to nature. This is a good thing! But in many cases, this non-specific desire isn’t clearly articulated, nor are the reasons for it explored with any clarity: we’re all so busy, so tired at the end of the day, expected to be constantly “on call” and plugged in to endless streams of information, that the idea of spending time nurturing an unknown, hidden side of life seems like a luxury at best.
Many think we may have this backwards. Nurturing the creative soul, digging into the soil to find the well of inspiration for our lives, may be our most important task – not an afterthought to be observed, far removed, in movies or literature. The lack of emphasis on this basic need may be at the root of what we see as “spirit-sickness” in our culture – and while the raw uncertainty and shifting truth of the postmodern world may have precipitated it, we are doing ourselves no favors de-emphasizing the rituals, ceremony, and attention to dreamtime so valued by all traditional cultures.
MarionWoodman, a Jungian researcher and therapist, puts a fine point on this issue by contrasting this attention to “stuff” (entertainment, cars, homes, etc…) with the root of true nourishment in human life, which crops up as a veiled desire for magic, a longing for the green world. Interestingly, she frames it in terms of the difference between “matter” (stuff) and “mater” (literally “mother” in Latin): we’ve replaced the nourishing all-mother with a lot of material possessions, in the hopes that we’ll get the nourishment we need. Of course this will never happen: this nourishment comes from something much deeper and mysterious – something you can’t buy! – and the lack of this matrix, this yin, leaves us feeling untethered and permanently homeless. We’ve built ourselves up and surrounded ourselves with all sorts of neat things, and many of them are so useful, but the practices that truly feed us have been left behind.
She goes further, to discuss how the archetypal masculine – the yang that strives for clarity and seeks to explore new spaces and horizons – has been shackled into a dominating, oppressive force that – of course – serves to suppress the archetypal feminine and pervert its essence to a drive for material substance (matter vs. mater). Couple this with an unrealistic expectation for perfection, and you have a recipe for the forces that shape Western culture. Nature, on the other hand, favors imperfection: but this argument rarely gets traction in the boardroom or halls of government.
Fortunately, culture is not static: it grows and evolves, much as a living being does, and we have the opportunity and privilege to participate in its remodeling. But as we herbalists move into the twenty-first century, we may need to think of our role as cultural stewards as a responsibility instead: more and more, we are seeing that the threads of Western culture do not always come together into sustainable patterns. From the medicalization of spirit-sickness, to our relationship to resource extraction and capital markets, can anyone see this trajectory continuing for the next fifty, not to mention two hundred, years? So the question becomes: in what ways should we work towards cultural remodeling? How can we, who are drawn together by the experiences we’ve had working with plants, begin to build the case for a mindful, nature-based, cultural remodeling program?
I believe the answer lies in observing nature – the matrix in which we are inextricably embedded. But this is not a straightforward task, even if we can see and hear the signals she offers us. Part of the difficulty lies, again, in the paradigm we’ve created for ourselves in the Western world, so different from the paradigm that underlies almost all other traditional cultures. If we are to restore a collective mythology that can create cohesion and meaning in our daily lives, we will quickly run into resistance, a sort of paradox: for a collective, nurturing matrix stands in opposition to the cult of individual power, it implies that the good of the community should come before our own personal interests, and this is a difficult idea to embrace in the western world at the threshold of the twenty-first century.

If you take the time to observe traditional cultural systems, still intact in many areas of the world, you uncover a very different perspective: the apparent paradox of living a life that simultaneously values self and community melts away. The key is recognizing that we are shaped and directed by our culture, and that no will is truly ever completely free: the community in which we live has as much to do with our behavior, health, and happiness as do our individual choices. My friend Mangoye, part of an extended Maasai family, makes daily choices related to his children, cattle, hunting, drinking and foraging, along with longer-term plans that help trace the arc of his individual life. But as we were talking about his plans, and I was wondering why he unquestioningly followed his father’s recommendation on whom to marry, how to trade cattle, and what priorities to focus on, I came to realize that Mangoye feels deeply that, in order to be happy and successful, he must follow the cultural and familial practices that his community has followed for generations. “We will fragment and die”, he told me, “if the wedding ceremonies are not followed, if the architecture of the engang is changed, if the morani stop hunting the lion.” And while arranged weddings, the health hazards of living in a cramped, smoky mud hut, and the death of warriors during a lion hunt may be difficult for us to accept, they form the underpinning of a collective mythology that has allowed the Maasai to thrive in a hostile environment that might otherwise swallow them whole. But this mythology, this context, Woodman’s “mater”, does more than just cohere the community: it acts as a source of stories and creativity, and both generates and constrains the forward-moving impetus of the culture. All native traditions seem to have something like this.
Maybe, proceeding from the idea that life is self-similar at multiple different levels (from bacteria to biospheres), we can learn not only from traditional cultures, but from the behavior of nature itself. Being an herbalist, I look to plants. And some fascinating research over the last decade is pointing to the idea that plants don’t see a conflict between individual health and the health of their communities, either. First off, Richard Karban and others at the University of California, Davis have documented in detail how plants are able to communicate with each other by secreting volatile compounds into the air. These compounds are monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes, along with some phenolics, usually found on trichomes studding the exposed surfaces of leaves and stems. The minty quality of mint, the pungency of rosemary, the brightness of eucalyptus and the tea tree, the dry camphorous quality of sagebrush – all are examples of these volatiles, usually released when we rub a leaf and damage it, and often referred to as the “essential oil” of a plant. Karban and his team have found that, in response to the presence of these molecules in the air, neighboring plants will initiate defensive processes, including the up-regulation of immune-like molecules known as phytoalexins, to prepare for damage or invasion. One plant raises the alarm, and its neighbors hunker down. As a result, the plant community stands a better chance at surviving and reproducing: but, part and parcel, the individual may be damaged or destroyed. Interestingly, Karban has gone further to show that plants can behave selfishly, too, at least to some extent: for while I may not be willing to get injured or killed to save a community of strangers, I’m willing to endure a lot to safeguard my close friends and family. And wouldn’t you know that the sagebrush plants Karban monitored do the same thing: they are able to recognize volatile signals from genetically-similar individuals (aka their “family”), responding with greater urgency and almost ignoring the signals that come from unrelated Artemisias transplanted from far away. Have you noticed how mugwort and sagebrush plants can often smell incredibly different, even within the same garden or field? These cocktails of volatile molecules are not only signals for danger, but ways to recognize kin. Protect and cohere. Channel collective behavior.
Ted Farmer and his team from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland traced exactly what happens in a plant when the first whiff of volatile chemistry is detected. Plants are able to relay this information to distant tissues using a series of ion gates, which open in response to the presence of volatiles and then cause an electrical shift to occur across the plasma membrane of the plant’s cell. Like a series of dominos, these ion gates then open, one by one, carrying an electrical wave along with them and thereby transmitting the initial signal down the leaf, through the petiole, and into the stem. This is a remarkable finding: human neurons work in almost the same way, albeit with more complex and diverse ion gates. And the initial stimuli for our nerves, the neurotransmitters, often show striking structural similarities with the volatile molecules found in plants. Plants’ essential oils are neurotransmitter cocktails – quite literally, for the botanical world, but maybe also for us, which may be part of the reason why they can have such powerful effects on our minds and spirits. The mechanisms plants use to hold their families and communities together, to communicate danger and plan their responses, are the same mechanisms we use to think, to move, and to unite our internal ecologies. Once again we see the idea of individual health – in this case, individual plants or individual human neurons – as being important both for its own sake, but also as a part of a greater whole. Human neurons are often trimmed, or even eliminated, in order to help cement useful patterns of thought and behavior. Should we mourn this? Or celebrate it? Or, perhaps, both?

What about mechanisms of communication between humans and their environments? If this pattern of caring for individual health by simultaneously advancing community and ecological health is visible at all levels of life, then we should be able to find some evidence of it in the dance between humans and fields, people and forests. I’d argue that the act of smelling the camphor, thujone and pine in a sagebrush desert is already evidence enough – we’ve got structures cued to detecting these smells, after all – but is there anything more? Stafford Lightman, professor of medicine at the University of Bristol, UK has spent years studying the effects of stress on the human system, and recently discovered that a common species of bacteria, found in most living soils, is able to modulate the serotonin system in our brain. Bacteria that live inside our guts seem to have this ability, too – but Mycobacterium vaccae, the species studied by Lightman and his team, lives outside of our bodies. When we get bare hands into garden soil (which, crucially, must be living soil teeming with organic material to support healthy bacterial colonies), M. vaccae speaks to us using our own signal molecules, and impacts our mood. We’ve known about the benefits of gardening on mental health for a long time now: recently, Masashi Soga from the University of Tokyo and Kevin Gaston from the University of Exeter conducted a comprehensive review of over 30 years of research and found substantial benefits from even short stints of gardening, including “reductions in depression, anxiety, and body mass index, as well as increases in life satisfaction, quality of life, and sense of community.” As our mood lifts and we become healthier, our sense of community increases, too. Could bacterial (and perhaps fungal) signals be a part of this? Channeling behavior, but also building resilience and nurturing creativity. Soil – and its thriving ecology – is the yin-like matrix, perhaps the most literal embodiment of Woodman’s “mater”.
Maya Shetreat-Klein, a pediatrician living in New York and author of The Dirt Cure, has researched this effect and applied it in her private practice. Her focus is on childhood development, and particularly on the attention and mood challenges some kids experience in today’s world. Now, it should come as no surprise that our kids are living in a different world than they might have even fifty years ago: as Richard Louv documents in his work, you can’t help but see “nature deficit disorder” when you hear a third grader questioning the value of playing outside because “there are no outlets there!”  But what Dr. Shetreat-Klein discovered is that, when you move away from the obsession with antibacterial soaps, “microban” plastics, and “helicopter”-style parental handwashing and bathing of children, you start to see a change in mood and attention even if the child spends a lot of time in an urban environment. Exposure to soil, and the microbes found everywhere, might be a crucial part of growing up well-adjusted. Again, we might not feel comfortable with baths just once a week, or with eating snacks with grubby hands. But isolating the individual from the surrounding microbial riot may, in the long run, do more harm than good. The microbes shape our moods, they set the stage for our spirits to run free, to course creative through clear channels. Without them we become untethered. Paradoxically, exposing our kids to more potential for illness and contamination makes them healthier and happier. Maybe, as we’re starting to see, this isn’t a paradox at all.
And it’s not confined just to soil and dirt: Andrea Taylor, a professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has been researching the connection between time spent in unstructured outdoor environments (even city parks) and the frequency and severity of attention-deficit-like symptoms. In one dramatic study, she found that a one-hour walk in a park was as effective as a single dose of Ritalin in managing symptoms. And while this is a great result, it also highlights the conflict between individual health and community health: sure, if we all embraced the idea that walks in parks were good for everyone and an important part of our shared cultural mythology, and we looked with concern on folks who hadn’t been for a walk outdoors for a day or two, we might see a whole lot less Ritalin prescribed. But who has the time for this? Who has the political will to set aside green islands across our urban environments? Isn’t it easier, more targeted, more “individual” to just administer a treatment on an as-needed basis? We might have to pay taxes for parks, take time out of our mornings, put down our phones and let our kids guide us through mucky cattails and get distracted from our task list. And while I say this tongue-in-cheek, it nevertheless requires personal sacrifice: subsuming the individual for the health of the family, the health of the community.
But in the long run, what might seem like a personal sacrifice could actually become a gain in happiness, productivity, and health. Traditional cultures have always known this, though to be fair it has historically been difficult to evade time outdoors (until now). We’ve been hearing a lot about the traditional Japanese practice of “forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku) lately, and how being in a forest environment, rich in sounds, sights, smells and chemical traces, can affect us in many positive ways. It seems that, particularly when it comes to stress (as Lightman found), forest-bathing can help reduce the symptoms of being alive in the twenty-first century: lowered blood pressure, lowered cortisol levels, and lowered neurological stress indicators all follow. Bum-Jin Park, from Chiba University in Japan, recently reviewed trials from over 20 different forests in Japan and confirmed a substantial, repeatable effect from this practice. Maybe with enough evidence we can begin to say that setting aside unstructured forest time, though it seems to not immediately advance our careers and contribute to individual success, might be a crucial medicine for modern life. What’s most important to me is that the creative impetus, that feeling of inspiration and flow that we are attempting to find with all our “matter”, springs effortlessly from the “mater”, the mother, who lives in the woods (and other more wild places in your neighborhood, even if it’s just a park).

We have wildness, or the potential for wildness, within us as well: for if the ecology around us is alive, we also contain multitudes of life – fungal, bacterial, even vegetal – all over and inside us. We’ve lived in symbiosis with our internal fauna and flora since well before we were humans, and there are innumerable lock-and-key systems that have evolved over our history that are reliant on a teeming internal microbiome. For example, there is an argument that our bitter taste receptors, which are found not only in our guts but also throughout the upper and lower airway, are looking for molecules (known as “quorum-sensing” molecules) secreted by potentially hostile bacteria when they start to get an upper hand. Our immune system kicks into gear, secreting stored defensins and immediately getting a handle on the population shifts. But what is most fascinating is that the quorum-sensing molecules that pathogens produce, known as acyl homoserine lactones, are virtually analogous in structure to lactones produced by plants like the common dandelion. If we consume these plants, we get a similar immune-enhancing reaction – and stay healthier. Could it be that plants are conspiring to keep us happy and well? Do they see us as their kin, as part of the web of life that sustains them, too?
Eva Selhub, from Harvard Medical School, has documented extensively how the state of our internal ecology affects our mood – a counterpoint to Stafford Lightman and Andrea Taylor’s work on the connections between external ecology and human moods. In an excellent two-part review, she documents how, at the turn of the twentieth century, the idea of “autotoxicity” (articulated by Nobel-winning microbiologist Elie Metchnikoff) was held forth as one of the major drivers of mental illness: essentially, an overgrowth of harmful intestinal bacteria was, at that time, seen as the root cause of the problem. Over the course of the twentieth century, that hypothesis was rejected in favor of a top-down approach that put the origin in the brain and neural tissue. Now we are realizing both ideas are part of the picture, but it is interesting to note that, with its reliance on the myth of the “self-made man” and the cult of unfettered, individual free will, the twentieth century chose to say that the brain itself is the source of all mental illness. Again, it’s hard to admit that our thoughts and feelings might not be under “our” control, and therefore we might want to reject the idea that bacteria are “controlling” us – but this is because we have such a limited definition of what “our” means, of who we are. If we look at things through a more traditional lens, we might find that our edges are not clearly defined, that we overlap chemically and physically with a range of internal and external ecologies, and that nurturing all of them, while it might not seem to be self-care, is a big part of our long-term wellbeing. Internal flora, though genetically distinct, might be part of “us”. Flora and fauna in our immediate environment might, at least in part, be “us” too (beyond the fact that we’re all made up of the same recycled stardust). By the same token our neurons, with their ability to recognize plant volatiles as neurotransmitters due to a conserved mechanism of action between the plant and animal kingdoms, might not be fully “us”. Recently, scientists are exploring the benefits of bathing less (or sometimes not all) on productivity, mood, sleep, and more. As you can imagine, this is yet another case of personal sacrifices and culture-shifting leading to improved health outcomes – all through growing gardens on our skin, in our hair, in our armpits.

Exploring our edges can have interesting consequences, but I believe it is essential we do so. First of all, it helps better explain what some have called the “bond” human beings have with nature: if we are willing to accept that the boundary lines of “self” and “non-self” are more like a great wetland at the estuary of a broad river, where fresh water and salt water mix and blend and create unique ecological niches, instead of stark dividing lines, then the “bond” becomes more of an “overlap”, and the mutual interdependence becomes more intuitive. Michael McCarthy, who writes articles on ecology, the environment, and nature for The Times of London and The Independent, attempts to convince us that this bond is an essential part of being human, and that we recognize its importance when we experience the sheer joy of being in nature. This joy, as he articulates it, is a combination of peace, happiness, transcendence, and creative inspiration: in short, it is that place traditional cultures attempt to engender through ritual, ceremony, and spiritual practice, for it is the source of our fullest life, it is the “mater”. But, upon reflection, I do not think that wild, human-free spaces are the only way to build this feeling. I have felt it many times from music, art, writing, even buildings – all quintessentially human constructs. Which leads me to the second consideration brought up in the exploration of our edges: is there something in nature, in the whole of nature of which we and all our creations are an inextricable part, that can help build and nurture this feeling of transcendent, inspired joy?

We will come back to this point in a moment. But first, consider this when exploring were “we”, as individuals, have edges: philosophers searching for the nature of our consciousness have been turning over this idea forever in a search to pinpoint consciousness, self-awareness, and what exactly thoughts are made of. One camp posits that, in a sufficiently complex system, “emergent” properties such as consciousness (or even life itself) come to be as part of the synergy of the system’s components. The whole, in this sense, becomes way more than the sum of its parts: it becomes self-aware. From this perspective, our thoughts and feelings (and everything else we associate with being conscious) is a by-product of our complex physiologies, and particularly the neural networks in the central nervous system. Another camp (whose position is well-articulated by philosopher Alva Nöe) subscribes to the idea of non-local consciousness: meaning that what we consider self-awareness isn’t limited to what’s in our heads, it overlaps with many other pieces of the world around us. Note that, though it may not appear so at first blush, these two ways of looking at consciousness aren’t necessarily incompatible – though I do think it is important to think of consciousness as non-local, not contained simply in our skulls.

There are a few reasons why this seems like a plausible viewpoint to me. First, we’ve already seen how our thoughts and feelings are affected by a range of factors from the world around us and also from the world inside us. Additionally, we’ve known for some time that somatic processes (like cold hands and feet, or gassiness from a difficult meal) send feedback to the brain that affects perception of stress and tolerance to it. But second, the idea of non-local consciousness helps explain how, every so often, we seem to share thoughts with those who are close to us: blurting out the same thing at the same time, thinking about a new topic right before a friend starts talking about it, sensing that a loved one is in trouble even on the opposite side of the world. I don’t pretend to know what the mechanism of consciousness is (the so-called “hard problem” of translating structures made of matter, like the brain, into the processes of consciousness), but it does seem that we can have definite overlaps with other consciousnesses in our life.

But is it truly just an overlap? I would posit that what we may be experiencing is a larger consciousness, one in which our own is “embedded”, or nested, sort of like our microbiome’s bacterial organisms are nested inside of us. And just as our microbiome can affect our mood and thoughts, perhaps we can affect the mood and thoughts of this larger consciousness: so the “telepathic” experience with a friend isn’t actually mind-reading, it’s just the you-and-your-friend relationship (the larger consciousness) having a thought that each of its nested consciousnesses is experiencing simultaneously. If you look at things this way, a family becomes a living, breathing being. Your garden, a neighborhood, a city, the local bioregion – all are alive and conscious, all teem with nested consciousnesses that have their own lives, thoughts, hopes and feelings. This of course proceeds both inward and outward, through the microbiome and the solar system, in a recursive, self-similar fashion: as above, so below. But it’s always important to remember that, at each level, no fate is completely fixed, and no will completely free: we belong to the bioregion, transients though we may be, the same way our microbiomes belong to us. And a final, interesting corollary is that, at a galactic or universal level, there must exist a consciousness too, of which we are all a part: perhaps this is what so many have known as “god”. But just as we are, sometimes, at the mercy of bacteria that live in our GI tract, so also any “god” is tied inextricably to all its nested consciousnesses. We affect each other. We think through each other.

With all this context, it becomes clear to me that our inextricable bond with everything around us, the experiences and emotions that flow through us when we perceive, with our limited minds, what the super-organisms we’re nested in are thinking, are the source and sink, the beginning and end, of life for us. They truly are Woodman’s “mater”. But when delving into the quality of these experiences and thoughts, the “language” that life uses as it expresses itself, we do start to notice some consistency. This might serve us well in our quest to become more mindful and aware of all the different threads of consciousness moving through us at any given time: after all, as all students of divination know, the trick isn’t having prescience: it’s recognizing when you’re having it! So is there something universal, expressed in nature, that we can hold as an anchor and touchstone? Does it have to be non-human, or do humans possess it too? Why do we feel it more when we’re out in the forest, or on the open savanna, than when we’re in an enclosed classroom?

It turns out that there very well might be. When we look at an acacia tree on a vast plain, for example, and feel a sense of joy, transcendence, and creative inspiration, we’re recognizing a pattern that has deep resonance for us. The resonance may be in part for survival reasons: recognizing natural patterns successfully helps us survive. But it also feels very much like coming home: there’s something familiar to it, and even in wild spaces that might seem daunting and scary, we feel held, embedded, connected. Look at mountains, river deltas, the rippling of waves on a lake or ocean, tree branching, veins branching, spirals in seeds, in clouds, in galaxies: the examples are endless, and they all feel familiar somehow. The examples extend into the human realm, too: we see it mostly in art, where buildings, paintings, sculptures – even if abstract – evoke peace, comfort, belonging, and inspiration when we perceive them. Perhaps the most stark example of this – because it’s clearly not attempting to mimic nature, which might be one argument as to why art feels good to us – is the work of Jackson Pollock, the abstract American painter who worked during the 1940s and 1950s. When we look at his paintings, which appear to be random streaks and splatters on huge canvases, we feel something similar to what we feel when we look out onto a wild landscape, or into the eyes of the person we love. What’s going on?

Richard Taylor, from the University of Oregon, presents a compelling hypothesis. To grasp its full import, we will have to take a short digression into mathematics and art: the first will give us a semi-objective context to understand the hypothesis, and the second a compelling example of how human creation, when driven by a connection to Woodman’s “mater”, can produce paintings like Pollock’s that evoke the same rich, vivid, transcendent experience we get from being in wild nature.

We remember dimensionality from geometry class: a point has dimension zero, a line dimension 1 (length), a square or plane dimension 2 (length and breadth), and a cube or space has dimension 3 (length, breadth and height). But take for a moment a line with a kink in it: this figure is more than just a straight line, it expands somewhat into two dimensions, but not enough to actually span a surface, to have two full dimensions. It is arbitrary and abstract to do this, but one might assign a “dimension” to that kinked line of 1.05 – somewhat more than just 1, which is a straight line. Now, if you make a more and more kinked line, one with kinks within kinks, you begin to get closer and closer to two dimensions the more complex and intricate the line becomes. Because of the amount of twists within twists, the line starts to define a surface – though it never quite reaches dimension 2. Mathematicians call this state a “fractal dimension”, somewhere between 1 and 2, and this is of course the origin of the term “fractal”, that mathematical construction that is self-similar at any level, exhibits repeating motifs, and straddles the line between perfect, rigid order and total, wild unpredictability.

Richard Taylor set out to mathematically analyze Jackson Pollock’s work by looking for patterns of self-similarity hidden in the apparent random paint splashes: was it indeed self-similar? Did a big splash over here have a smaller echo over there, and yet another one about half again as far away? Did all the different colors of splashes follow similar patterns and, if so, did they exhibit any kind of fractal dimensionality? The results are fascinating: during the early years, Pollock’s paintings had a little self-similarity, with fractal dimensionality close to 1.1. But as his work matured, the fractal dimension increased, and the paintings showed more and more recursive self-similarity, until reaching 1.4, when all of a sudden art critics began to really like his work. Taylor’s hypothesis is that Pollock hit upon a universal fractal dimensionality, one that you see as the dominant resonant fractal dimensionality in nature. That’s why the critics came to love the later paintings.

It turns out that if you map out the branching patterns of a river delta, or of that acacia tree on the savanna, they have a fractal dimension very close to 1.4 – just like Pollock’s work. In fact, almost any system found in nature has this same quality.  What’s more, you see fractal dimensionality close to 1.4 in some of our most beloved pieces of classical music – in Bach, for example – that encode the right level of complexity, just as natural systems do. Many pieces of literature do this as well. What’s going on here? Were Bach and Pollock doing complex math before sitting down to be creative? Or were they somehow tapping into a very basic, underlying process?

Taylor and others decided to investigate. They conducted an experiment that mapped the rapid, subtle eye motions (known as “microsaccades”) that we unconsciously make when looking at anything. We don’t actually just “look” at stuff – our eyes scan the visual field, taking in details that our brain then uses to assemble a composite image. What Taylor found was that the pattern we use to scan is a fractal pattern: a big swipe first, then a series of successively smaller swipes across smaller and smaller pieces of the visual field, in recursively self-similar fashion. The fractal dimensionality of this scanning pattern is close to 1.4. So perhaps part of the reason we find Pollock’s later work appealing is that it is “in sync” with the way our eyes look at the world: we find splashes where we expect to find splashes. Unconsciously, we recognize it. It makes sense.

Researchers have found similar patterns in the neural network firing of our brain and in the heart rate variability patterns of our pulse – two of our most basic physiological processes. Ary Goldberger from Harvard Medical School, who documented much of this, describes this fractal organization with dimensionality 1.4 as a happy medium between rigid order and complete chaos – a system wild enough to adapt, grow, and create but not so wild as to become unstable. Taylor and Goldberger both speculate that our conscious process, just like the act of looking, has this same quality. And interestingly, Taylor goes further: when we connect with a painting, or a natural scene, that exhibits fractal dimensionality of 1.4, he found that our levels of stress decrease by up to 60%. We feel in synch. Friction drops off. We resonate.

Perhaps this is what we’re recognizing when we feel an overarching consciousness thinking through us – perhaps this is why we feel alive, unburdened, joyful and inspired. Our internal processes are synching up with the basic fractal dimensionality of the world all around us. Like allowing ourselves to get lost in an incredible piece of music, we can transcend the limits of our own individual consciousness, leave behind the rigidity of individual self, and resonate with a larger community: be it a relationship, a neighborhood, a planet, or the whole field of stars. We add our own note to the symphony – and the whole symphony is richer for it.

What does this mean in practice for us, as we live and move through our daily lives? Though I can’t pretend to have a universal answer, I do think we can draw a number of lessons from the balance of the evidence before us, and the consequences of putting these lessons into practice might have profound implications for our individual well-being and beyond. First, we have to remember than any answer will include a daily practice: this is Marion Woodman’s “mater”. We can’t focus on the microbe, the plant, the thing, Gaia: this is just “matter”. The answer probably isn’t in a particular herbal formula, or probiotic cocktail. It’s more about the daily renewal and the processes we use to identify and connect with the nested consciousnesses in which we are embedded. Similarly, sticking to rituals for their own sake (“taking the finger for the moon”, as the Zen priests might say) won’t work either: life is ever-changing, and our driving goal should be to enhance connection within and without, so that the super-organism can be nurtured and nurture us in turn. We may have to become comfortable subsuming our individual free will in this case – but all evidence seems to point to the fact that this is worth it in the end, and make us happier and healthier.

Specifically, pieces of this practice might include connecting to soil, dirt, and microbes wherever we go (mindful, naturally, of the obviously risky bugs). Every day, touch some wild water. Touch dirt and tree bark. When you travel, get dirty. Put things in your mouth. Allow your internal and external ecologies to connect by simply bringing them into contact. The evidence from Elie Metchnikoff, through Stafford Lightman, Andrea Taylor, and Maya Shetreat-Klein all points in this direction.
Consider fermentation as a source of interesting internal denizens, but also consider adding to your ferment mothers from other people, places, and starter cultures. Think about wild yeast in your brewing – maybe even collect strains from places you’ve lived.
Engage in the practice of tonic herbalism: the daily use of plants and mushrooms, ideally from really close by though also from far-flung places with which you’ve had the pleasure of overlapping consciousness, renews both the internal and external ecologies (after all, you’re going to have to find those herbs outside somewhere). This seems to me a more important, foundational discipline than using plants as remedies for disease and complaints. It speaks to forging and maintaining important friendships, to building alignments with other consciousnesses.
And speaking of building alignments, consider rituals and ceremonies that use those special plants and mushrooms we know as entheogens, the ones that change our brain wave patterns in ways similar to those Ary Goldberger saw when we resonate with the fractional dimensionality of the universe. But do it mindfully, intentionally: when building an alignment with a spirit of place, plant, animal, or whatever broader consciousness you choose to align yourself with, we’re making a long-term, sacred commitment that feeds us deeply but also demands to be fed (don’t make this commitment lightly).
As we build cities, let’s look to the patterns and systems nature exhibits and move away from rigid, dimension-1 construction style. As we teach and learn, let’s allow for elements of chaos to inject creative diversity into the curriculum. As we relate to each other, let’s avoid either/or, male/female, us/them ideas and try to embrace the creative fullness of the “imperfect” in-between. It really comes down to paying attention and being willing to flex!

In the end, this becomes true tonification: like a tonic note that is echoed fractally through a musical piece, our living becomes a self-similar pattern that echoes the same self-similarity found across all of reality. The process will feed the individual soul, to be sure, but only because it feeds the collective soul, too. It is the road to healing spirit sickness, rediscovering our shared mythology, and remodeling our culture so that it, as a super-organism, can move forward in resonance with its own internal and external ecologies. But there is a note of warning here, too: as humans, we have spent our collective childhood playing with our special abilities, our drive for progress, for innovation, for boundary-breaking. We’ve achieved remarkable things, but have remained firmly planted in our species’ own individual self-interest. Now, at this moment in time, we know better. It is time for us to grow up, to join our ancestors, to move forward as a species through a ritual of initiation that will align us with what the microbes, mushrooms and plants already know. It will be transformative, and not without struggle – but how much more incredible will be the application of our human gifts if we just allow ourselves to listen with respect. We will take the power of life and amplify it to the stars.

               May you look into the vessel, into dream, into wind
               And may you not find them empty.
               May you see the light of the dark sun
               The tangents, the off-tracks, the fantasy
               The gravid emptiness of liminal space

               Interstice of inspiration.