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issue: 06/15/2000

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1 Encounters with Nature, essays by Paul Shepard, edited by Florence Shepard, Island Press, Shearwater Books, Covelo, CA 1999.

2 Shepard, page 9.

Information Technology Meets Global Ecology

Global Ecology and Information Technology:
Techno-Shamanism and Animal Powers

by Cate Gable

In the aftermath of the PLANETWORK Global Ecology and Information Technology conference, I went to the Cascades, Eastern side, for ten days to listen to some rivers. No laptop, no email (except in spurts when I touched down in my home-town of Yakima, Washington), no radio, no television, no phone. I did have electricity, running water, and reading material: a newly-published edition of Paul Shepard's essays, Encounters with Nature. 1

I wanted to let the intellectual technology, the ideas, philosophies, and theories of PLANETWORK, sink into a deeper place in me: I needed a sifting and sorting process. And I wanted to see if the natural world was where I left it.

The Naches River and its tributaries, the Little Naches and the Bumping, are in full spring flood now, overrunning their banks and washing over the gravel plains and islands they have laid down over the years. Since I stayed close to the rivers, I saw mostly water birds: Canadian Geese, Kingfisher, Mallards, Water Ouzels, Eagles; but also those omnipresent tricksters the Ravens, Stellers Jays, and Crows; and an occasional Goldfinch, even a Vulture.

But I found myself missing the Chipmunks, Ground Squirrels and Pine Squirrels that used to dominate the Ponderosa Pine landscape with their chatter and warnings. There were no late-night rambling families of Raccoons. No Skunk (except dead on the highway.) And fewer Mule Deer. I didn't get far enough afield to see any Bear.

I started a long poem entitled "Speaking to the Dead" and, in retrospect, I realize I am not only talking to the human friends who have passed since I last sat beside the Naches. The animals are disappearing too.

But this isn't a debate about whether we need animals. (My answer, like E. O. Wilsons's, is unequivocally "YES!" ) This is a small exploration into the question of how animals continue to support us in the midst of our stunning incapacity to care for them. And, specifically, how they continue to be in the service of our latest technologies.

Paul Shepard's lead essay "The Origin of Metaphor: The Animal Connection"
lays out his basic premise about the evolution of homo sapiens. Shepard
believes that it was our interaction with the great beasts-hunting them and
eating their flesh- that created the environment for the intelligence and the
consciousness that ultimately raised us to a level of self-awareness unseen
in the animal kingdom:

As our ancestors became hunters, they plunged, late arrivals, into the old, savanna game of brain-making by means of clues. . . The scenario is one of reciprocal , strategic pursuit and escape in which the amount of brain beyond that necessary for routine body functions is the measure of intelligence, which slowly increased in both predator and prey as they reckoned each other over the millennia. 2


Ecopsychology posits that it is the experience of the natural world, which one ventures into from a mother's knee, that gives the developing human an expanded sense of self and identity; that, in a world right with itself, Mother Earth becomes the second mother for all of us.

Shepard goes on to talk about the Bear and its relevance for the early humans both as a worthy opponent and as "the giver of life in bone, fat, glands, skin, [and] meat." Why else would we have named the largest and most visible constellations the Big and Little Bear (Ursa Major and Minor)?

Think of how often and in what essential ways the Bear is represented in our language in the dozen meanings of the verb "bear:" to give birth or to produce, to carry or transmit, to support or to hold to a course. Bear up, bear in mind, bear out, bear fruit, bear down on, bear witness to, bear left.

Our psyches, our language, our very consciousness we owe to the animals. They have been our sacred partners in this grand experiment called 'life on earth,' and in some realms, with some individuals, they continue to lead and assist with their essential animal powers.

Mike Vincenty is a practical, down to earth guy. A techie who wandered from electrical engineering into computer networks, he was educated at the Coast Guard Academy and, despite his gray ponytail, looks like Mr. Straight-shooter. Mike is the Network Administrator for the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) and is Technical Director on the PLANETWORK core team, of which I am also a member.

The PLANETWORK team got together a couple nights ago to compare notes on the conference, and Mike got to talking about the network ritual that he and the co-executive directors performed after having some scarey server crashes and network snafus. In effect, he came out of the closet to us as a techno-shaman.

I was intrigued enough to stop by his office the other day to find out more. Mike uses animal powers in ritual network cleansing because, as he puts it, "When I find something that works, I use it." He has made his own ceremonial tools for the job, because as he points out, "You can't just go out and buy this stuff at Radio Shack." Mike's leather 'doktor' bag includes a 'bit vacuum;' a 'spirit knife or scraper;' a set of Medicine Cards (created by Jamie Sams and David Carson) representing the animal powers; and a selection of raptor feathers that Mike has collected from his annual treks into the Sierra backcountry.

In the opening of a typical network cleansing, Mike likes rattles and sound because that lets the animal or spirit powers "know we're here." Then medicine cards are selected for each of the compass points, usually in this order: East-for beginnings, birth, dawn, the spirit path; South-for experience gathering (childhood); West-for introspection and sorting of experience (maturity); North-for the result of the experiences, wisdom (the elders).

If, as Peter Russell believes, consciousness is the root of matter and, therefore, in essense, 'creates' matter, then all matter, including computers and networks, have a kind of consciousness. So, where do those bits and bytes go when your computer crashes? Mike believes that they pile up in the invisible spirit realm and that they need to be cleaned up from time to time. Hence, the bit vacuum, which is a stick with ram chips and floppy drives (to attract the bits); he has also attached a bar-code reader wand to one end of the stick, again to soak up those bits junking up the works.

In the actual cleansing part of the ceremony, the user of the bit vacuum sucks up the bits from around all the computers or network connection points; these move into a coil of wire that is grounded in an electrical outlet. (After the vacuuming, this wire with its load of idle bits, is thrown away-it has become a kind of psychic toxic waste.) Then the spirit knife is used to scrape the network wires and connections clean. Lastly, the feathers are used to smooth the connections and 'polish' up the network. Sometimes these feathers are left in key places to become on-going organic antennae for the network.

When Mike and the PLANETWORK founders performed the ritual cleansing for PLANETWORK's T-1 connection at the San Francisco Presidio, they invoked a quartet of animal powers to shepherd the event. In the East, Beaver, the structural engineer of nature, was called forth to help establish the foundation for the network. In the South was the Mountain Lion, for non-authoritarian leadership to assist in overcoming adversity. In the West, Fox provided a camouflage to gain intelligence in order to promote cooperation. And, finally, for the result in the North, Turkey, represented potlatch, the sacred gift, and community sharing. Anyone present at PLANETWORK felt these powers at work.

I think Shepard would approve of techno-shamanism. He might see it as a reintegration of ritual and animal spirit-power into a world that we have stripped bare of ceremonial meaning.

Zuni's believe that Black Bear is the guardian of the West. The Bear clan is believed to be in charge of the seasonal changes. Bears are healers that preside over basic emotions such as fear, anger, jealousy, avarice, and vengeance. We need the tremendous strength and wisdom of the Bear in these troubled times.

Please Great Bear, help us to remember that is it through the power of introspection and solitude that we can integrate the experience of change. Help us to find you in our lives and to keep you alive. Give us your courage and your powers of transformation. You who have fed us and guided us in the darkest night, please help us again. We have lost our way.


b i o :
Cate Gable is a poet and writer (author of Strategic Action Planning NOW!) , strategic marketing consultant in e-commerce, teacher, and President of Axioun Communications International. She divides her time between Berkeley, CA; the Pacific Northwest; and Paris, France. Send comments to her at


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