Isolation and Connection

Left Hand Creek in Buckingham Park, Boulder County, CO. Photograph by Jo Belasco.

Now that I’ve explained myself, let’s return to the second blog post of this nascent series about the power and potential of the crisis we face at this time. And at the end of this post, I’ll explain the presence of this photograph.

First, I want to say very clearly at the outset that seeing power and potential in a challenging or even tragic event does NOT mean that event has happened “for our own good” or is “not so bad.” It is that bad, it is that painful and dangerous. And it cannot have “been done” for our own good because, quite frankly, we’ve done it to ourselves. Of course we didn’t do it on purpose. But neither did anyone else do it to us on purpose. So let’s be sure to set those ground rules for what I mean and don’t mean as I try to explain what people have asked me to talk about.

The starting point is this: that in our isolation and enforced social distancing, we are discovering the bonds of our common humanity. Let me give you a couple of specific examples, in case you aren’t sure you agree with that observation. Let’s start with American politics. Farmers and bankers, television personalities and assembly line workers, moms and dads, even the politicians themselves, have worried over the increasingly vitriolic rancor between people of different political parties the last few years. Bipartisan cooperation, whether in town halls or the halls of congress, seemed increasingly to be viewed as nearly an act of treason. Yet last night the U.S. Senate passed a relief package for Americans by a vote of 96-0. According to NPR, “Ahead of the 96-0 vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told lawmakers, ‘Our nation obviously is going through a kind of crisis that is totally unprecedented in living memory.'” In other words, in a crisis, we come together. 96 to 0. You may say, “Well, that’s a no-brainer. Of course no one is going to vote to withhold help from people in a crisis.”

Well yes. That’s the point.

It’s not just the politicians, and it’s not just the “big” things like passing relief bills. In countries all over the world, people living in social isolation to prevent contagion have begun singing and even clapping together from apartment windows and balconies. A Common Dreams article links to videos from Italy, Lebanon, and Spain that show people “seeking out human connection” that maintains health and hope in a time of social isolation and separation, The Guardian posted a video (please watch it!) that shows how “In January in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak is believed to have begun, residents chanted ‘jiāyóu,’ or ‘keep up the fight,’ for the city and its people.”

Did you feel something move within you when you watched these videos? If not, please read tomorrow’s blog. There’s a physiological reason for being unable to feel a response to such videos, just as there’s a physiological reason for feeling moved by them. It is interesting that simply viewing such things on a video can elicit almost the same response as participating in them.

For now, I want to focus on what it was you felt stirring inside you when you heard the people of desperate Wuhan, back at the beginning of all this outbreak in January, calling to one another from their balconies in solidarity and hope — literally in the cold darkness of a deep winter night. Back in January, this kind of isolation had never happened before — nowhere in the world, and at no time in history. The move to shut down an entire city with millions of residents was unprecedented. It turned out to be so effective that of course now it’s being practiced worldwide. Epidemiologists and other health professionals know exactly what the alternative outcome to this pandemic looks like, and quarantine on a massive scale prevented, and is still preventing, literally horrific loss of life.

At the same time, there’s a different cost — and not an economic one, either — to quarantine on such a massive scale. Whether you call it quarantine, social distancing, self-isolation, or shelter-in-place, a requirement that people put distance between themselves and other human beings strikes us as somehow unbearable. I can’t count the number of times over the past few weeks I’ve had friends say some variant of, “I can’t imagine not going to my office!” or “I can’t imagine not at least going out to dinner at our favorite restaurant!” Or, more insistently, “There’s no way I can keep my kids from hanging out with their friends! I can’t imagine such a thing!”

Of course, reality is teaching our imaginations what’s actually possible. And if we refuse to retrain our imaginations, the very real threat of literally millions of deaths on unattended gurneys in overwhelmed hospitals is going to make local law enforcement start using hefty fines and future jail time to teach our imaginations new ways of thinking.

But here’s the interesting question: Why do cities and states have to make rules to keep people from being in contact when they know perfectly well they could catch a fatal disease from that contact? Why do people who know what could happen violate these rules, on purpose, to be together anyway — to the point where the rules have to be tightened to ensure enforcement? Why, when the lockdown tightens, do isolated people sing and clap and chant from their windows and balconies? And why does seeing those videos make something powerful move deep inside you?

Because relationship is essential. No, I am not saying you should break quarantine. I am saying that quarantine has taught you something your body and your heart and your soul have known all along, that even your imagination remembered — but that somehow, at a social and political level, this culture forgot: we are all relations. We are deeply, vitally, inextricably connected to one another through a strong-flowing river of Life itself. It is that River we feel stirring and flowing within us when, in the midst of our own fear and isolation, we hear the people of Wuhan calling out to one other and together, chanting in the darkness of winter and the night of a terror that now visits us all: “Keep up the fight! For the city and its people!” And we can FEEL that river of relationship.

Now look again at the picture I posted to express this true thing, at the top of this page. You can see the separate stones on the riverbed, and the sun glints off the surface of the water in beautiful ways that create additional shapes and colors. Yet, within and moving through this beautiful mosaic, is the water of the river itself.

So: In forced isolation from one another, we have discovered our deep and literally vital connection.

Paradox of this type should always make us stop and pay attention. For paradox is the hallmark of spiritual ways of knowing. Powerful paradox such as we are experiencing now signifies the presence of Knowledge from a particularly powerful source. You may think of that source in any of a number of ways, depending on your own religious or cultural traditions. But most traditions see that source as the author of, or expression of, Life itself.

This is not the end of the paradoxical power inherent in the situation moving through our world at this time. Nor is it the end of the ways the situation can be viewed through a lens of Indigenous Knowledge.

Just Stop

In a future trial to affix blame for the collapse of world culture that began in the year 2020, my two previous blog posts could be  “Exhibits A and B” for the prosecution. Because although I was responding to private requests to write something that would help people understand the ways Indigenous worldview could help people respond to a challenging time like this one, those two blog posts and the “memes” that were their centerpieces wound up expressing — smack dab center-fire — the very culture that’s causing the problem. Because as I wrote those words and started to share them, lots of people (not just one or two) told me, “It needs to be shorter,” and “It needs to grab people in one or two sentences,” and “It would be good if it was funny, or at least cute.” Those two previous posts were the results, and there were several more lined up to go out after them.

But I am not going to do that this time. I woke up at 2 o’clock in the morning and the realization of what I’d let happen with those posts was rising up inside me like the lava dome inside Mt. St. Helens. And it was every bit as hot, steaming with the power of the Land itself, molten and alive. So I am going to write words in response to what I have been asked, but I am not going to be dragged onto ground that people insist must be stood upon in order to communicate. I am going to stand my ground as a Native woman, and I am going to say what actually needs to be said. And if people refuse to hear it because it doesn’t have a funny picture with it, all I can say is: My god, if hard things cannot be heard at such a time as this, if no one can be bothered to sit down long enough to take in more than a sound bite or a funny picture . . . then we are done for. It’s that simple. Because it is this impatience that is going to kill you.

Yes: you. All of us with you, of course. But my understanding right now is that this doesn’t carry nearly the weight it should. So I tell you: it will kill you. Worse, it will kill your precious children and grandchildren. This is simply true, not a threat. It grieves me as much as it grieves you; I have no wish to see it happen. But I’m not the one insisting that the bad news can only be entertained if it’s literally also entertaining. And these deaths are not going to happen in some unimaginable future hundreds of years from now when you will be gone and not know about it. If you don’t sit down and pay attention and really change some things, these deaths will happen in your own lifetime, and be the thing that brings an end to that lifetime. And it won’t be a happy or peaceful end, either.

Now: I have not said we’re all doomed. I have said we’re all doomed if you don’t change your ways. And one of the most insidious of “your ways” is to insist that you only have time to read 200 characters (or whatever it is) and look at a quick picture and then be off to the next thing. I realize you’re busy. I realize you’re anxious right now, and distressed, and upset, and very stressed. Which is all the more reason to sit down, calm down, and knock it off.

Just stop. You can. I am 100% positive. Just stop and sit still for a while and you’ll see.

It’s the perfect time for it. In fact, the times demand it. In more ways than one.

–to be continued, tomorrow — Meanwhile, a word from our sponsor . . .

Cliff in Left Hand Canyon where golden eagles nest, near Boulder, CO. Photo by Jo Belasco.

Happy Anniversary, Tapestry Institute

fullrug1Twenty years ago, Dawn Adams, Ph.D. created Tapestry Institute in order to reconnect people with the natural world by using different ways of knowing, learning about, and responding to the natural world. Tapestry has a history of creating ground-breaking programs, such as our Indigenous Science Program. Through this program, Tapestry held the first conference dedicated to Indigenous Science in 2002. Stories from the Circle:  Science and Native Wisdom brought together Indigenous scientists, scholars, authors, artists, and more to explore this important discipline. Tapestry’s innovative programs are always held within Indigenous worldview, which provides participants with a different way of interacting with the world, a way based on relationship and reciprocity.

Wild buffaloThanks to Dawn’s vision, Tapestry has changed people’s lives in ways they never thought were possible. The attorney found “peace in myself” when she attended a “Mythic Living for Modern Women Workshop” at our former ranch in Nebraska. After attending the same workshop, an engineer said that with Tapestry, she got to “experience the personal meaning of the myth and integrate the science, song, art and movement of the myth.” A  survivor of childhood sexual assault who participated in our Horse Ibackakali Program said she learned things about herself that she was going to take with her throughout the rest of her life.

As we enter our next decade, it seems imperative that we recognize and rekindle our relationship with nature. The natural world is changing dramatically, and Tapestry will be here with programs that provide unique ways to relate to that world. We invite you to come along and participate in our programs. Our website is filled with information on Indigenous worldview, a topic that becomes more important every day as Indigenous voices gain strength and are finally heard. Our Occasional Papers provide you with unparalleled insight into the very roots of the human-nature connection.

vickiscoutforwebIf you have supported Tapestry over the years, we thank you and want you to know that you have made a difference in people’s lives. You can keep updated about our work by visiting our social media pages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn. We hope that you will be able to attend a Tapestry event and experience one of our programs in person. Please consider supporting our important work with a tax-deductible donation.


            Thank you, and here’s to another 20 years!


Clarissa Rizal Walks On

Clarissa RizalClarissa Rizal walked on to join the ancestors this week. The fact of writing that sentence seems surreal. She was diagnosed with what would turn out to be a lethal condition less than 8 weeks ago, went back to Colorado to her adult children, and then left us. Our hearts haven’t caught up with reality yet. We still expect to get an email from her, telling us when she’s going to visit this spring as we’d planned. She was going to buy an RV and tour the country. We’d planned to talk to her, our old and dear friend, about joining Tapestry’s Board of Directors. Here’s a very recent picture from her website of Clarissa with one of the astonishing Chilkat robes she wove. It is this face of joy, the beauty of person and created art, that live so strongly in our hearts and our minds that we can’t get used to the fact that she’s gone.

Clarissa RizalWe met Clarissa back in 2002 at a conference Tapestry hosted called “Stories from the Circle: Science and Native Wisdom.” Then she was part of a film pre-production team that met in Palo Duro Canyon the next year. The group went for a horseback ride that bitterly cold but beautiful weekend, and Clarissa was thrilled to draw the only mustang in the string as her mount. Here she is horseback on that mustang, smiling her beautiful smile, ready to set out on the ride. That same trip she walked off into the scrub oak and cedar as shadows began to fill the canyon floor, and a short time later the sweet sound of her flute drifted out of the trees to echo from the soft canyon walls and rise into the clear and darkening sky.

In 2004, Clarissa attended a Snowchange meeting in Alaska with Dawn, dancing joyfully with the local people and making good friends of visiting Maori. She and Dawn stayed up late at night as Clarissa talked about her girlhood growing up in Homer, Alaska, the town on such steep slopes that houses were above one another rather than side by side. We talked marriage and children, life and rebirth, mystery and the mundane. Such was Clarissa’s gift of weaving different things together into a breath-taking whole you never saw coming.

Visit Clarissa’s website to soak up the beauty of her work and her life. The more people who carry her glorious vitality and love of life in their heart, the stronger Clarissa’s spirit will live on in a world that so desperately needs it.

Clarissa, we miss you already! Walk on in beauty now, as always, and revel in all the new adventures before you.

The Scientific Method” Ain’t Necessarily So

One of the biggest methodological problems of run-of-the-mill modern science is that it doesn’t pay enough attention to the philosophy of science. When it does, it tends to fasten onto a single philosopher such as Karl Popper. And the second biggest problem with run-of-the-mill (as opposed to innovative and ground-breaking) modern science is that it is ignorant of any of the enormous methodological, philosophy-relevant changes that have taken place in physics, astronomy, chemistry, evolutionary biology, and genetics since about 1970. Yes, I am saying it is 45 years out of date. But sometimes you have to call a spade a spade.

It was way back in 1980 that Stephen Jay Gould, an extremely well-respected vertebrate paleontologist, explained that he did not use the Scientific Method. Instead, he reconstructed the “unique and complex” history of life on earth in his search for understanding about past life (1), which is to say he told stories — responsible stories told with care, but stories. Many of Gould’s numerous and best-selling books took issue with ideas about falsifiable and testable “Scientific Method” prevalent in modernist science and the logical positivistic philosophy that informs “scientism” (as it is called). Mind you: Gould was not an inconsequential or ignorant scientist. He was Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University, where he taught evolutionary theory. Considered one of the most important evolutionary theorists of the last half of the 20th century, Gould was President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) from 1999 to 2001. In other words, he did not speak or write about scientific method lightly or off-handedly, and he was being very much to the point when he said he did not use the Scientific Method. In many of his writings, he made it very clear that the processes we refer to by that name, of crafting a testable hypothesis for example, are not only philosophically unsound but unable to produce meaningful research in new fields of exploration.

One of the most salient examples of research that does not use the so-called “Scientific Method” is that of theoretical physics, which is highly mathematical and rigorous but does not follow any of the procedures commonly taught to students in introductory science classes. Despite the fact that you can find websites that purport to retrofit Einstein’s work to the Scientific Method, neither theoretical physicists nor philosophers of science see it that way — and neither, most of the time, did Einstein himself.

One of the most powerful sources about Einstein’s work and processes is the extremely thorough and highly academic biography by Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe. Citing numerous other scholars and biographers as well as Einstein’s own writings, Isaacson argues that Einstein did not follow the Scientific Method in the ways that most people define or conceptualize those processes. Here is just a selection of quotes and their sources about this matter, to drive home the serious nature of the methodological issue in question:

“. . . therein lies the key, I think, to Einstein’s brilliance and the lessons of his life. As a young student he never did well with rote learning. And later, as a theorist, his success came not from the brute strength of his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity . . . As he once declared, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.'” (7; quote is from Viereck, see below) See also these references: Tomas Friedman, “Learning to Keep Learning” New York Times, Dec. 13, 2006. George Viereck Sylvester. 1930. Glimpses of the Great. New York: Macauley. (Einstein profile first published as ‘What Life Means to Einstein” in Saturday Evening Post, Oct. 26, 1929.)

“It is important to foster individuality, for only the individual can produce new ideas.” (7; from Einstein message for Ben Scheman Dinner, March 1952, AEA 28-931; reference 8 from Isaacson) “[Einstein] generally preferred to think in pictures, most notably his famous thought experiments, such as imagining watching lightning strikes from a moving train or experiencing gravity while inside a falling elevator. ‘I very rarely think in words at all,’ he later told a psychologist. ‘A thought came, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.'” (9) ref 4, Ch. 2, “Childhood”: Vallentin, 17; Einstein to psychologist Max. Wertheimer in Wertheimer, 1959, Productive Thinking, NY Harper: 214. Antonina Vallentin. 1954. The Drama of Albert Einstein. NY Doubleday.

“Weber’s irritation was yet another example of how Einstein’s scientific as well as his personal life was affected by the traits deeply bred into his Swabian soul: his casual willingness to question authority, his sassy attitude in the face of regimentation, and his lack of reverence for received wisdom.” (Weber was a physics professor at Zurich Polytechnic; Einstein himself spoke of the traits of his “Swabian soul” in this manner.) page 34.

From Footnote 26: “Professor Robert Rynasiewicz of Johns Hopkins is among those who emphasize Einstein’s reliance on inductive methods. Even though Einstein in his later career wrote often that he relied more on deduction than on induction, Rynasiewicz calls this ‘highly contentious.’ He argues instead, ‘My view of the annus mirabilis is that it is a triumph of what can be secured inductively in the way of fixed points from which to carry on despite the lack of fundamental theory.'” Pers. comm. email to the author, July 2006. FN 27: Miller, Arthur I. 1984. Imagery in Scientific Thought. Boston: Birkhäuser. p. 117. Also Sonnert, Gerhard. 2005. Einstein and Culture. Amherst NY: Humanity Books, page 289

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. I was a member for many years of interdisciplinary research groups at UC Berkeley that included a number of quantum physicists and chemists, among whom were several Nobel Prize laureates. I guarantee you they knew their philosophy of science. And they literally laughed at the idea that the Scientific Method is the only way research is carried out.

Book upon book exist in the field of philosophy of science, documenting the actual processes used by extraordinary as well as run-of-the-mill scientists in all kinds of research endeavors, most of them concluding that the so-called “Scientific Method” is but a subset of deductive reasoning, with many extraneous trappings, and that deductive reasoning itself is but one of a number of methods used to carry out real and innovative scientific research.

In addition to this, a number of books in the field of feminist science have uncovered methodologies used by researchers such as geneticist Barbara McClintock, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1983. The basis of her work did not lie in crafting testable or falsifiable hypotheses and pursuing them in the rigid manner prescribed by those who believe the Scientific Method not only describes how scientific research is done, but how it should be done.

Indigenous research methods exist within this rich palette of methods and fields. They offer so much value to the research community that Indigenous elders and educators meets regularly with research scientists in the fields of theoretical physics and resilience ecology, and it is not so they can be educated in the Scientific Method.

Yes, crafting a hypothesis can be useful. Yes, it can be meaningful to make that hypothesis testable, or even falsifiable. I have taught the method to both undergraduate and graduate students. But it is absolutely NOT the only way scientific research is really done.

So when someone from the dominant scientific community tells me that Indigenous research graduate students “must” use the Scientific Method in their work for it to be valid science – that they must frame their research as a problem statement, hypothesis, and research question — or that, in some cases, they even have to posit a theory (a level of ideation that has no business in an early research career, which is something a scientist advisor ought to know), I have to cry not only “foul” but “bad science!” It’s time we, as Indigenous scholars, started learning some sound philosophy of science. I think the dominant culture counts on us not knowing it. For certain, without it we cannot defend ourselves. We can only – and I think this may be the better course of action – simply go about our business and ignore them.

(1) Stephen Jay Gould. 1980. The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. p. 18-27

(2) Walter Isaacson. 2008. Einstein: His Life and Universe. Simon & Schuster.