Andrew Fritz, Urban Conservation Technician
From when I was a child and into high school, I often went out to the woods on the land where I grew up with my beagle dog, Sawyer. I’d pick a sitting spot, usually perched up on a mild ridge of higher elevation, and watch Sawyer put his nose to the ground, stick his white-tipped bobbing tail to the sky, and sniff out rabbits. Over the course of the next hour or so I’d sit, watch, and listen as Sawyer coursed with the subtle contours and shape of the land. He’d disappear behind worn ancient sand dunes, remnants of when current Lake Michigan reached far into northwest Indiana, only to reappear moments later sniffing and cajoling a rabbit in my direction. He would waddle to the edge of a wetland and look into it. I’d look into it, too. He’d find nooks and crannies – the kind where most of life happens beyond sight – examining each spot, following a phantom invisible path that the evolution in his nose could detect. Even when Sawyer would disappear for longer stints, I could hear him rustling through layers of dead leaves off in the distance. On a calm day it was quiet enough to hear for miles. But even when the wind blew, I could still hear him amidst the dappling canopy above, the groans of trees as they swayed, or in the rustling of grasses that grazed my shoulder. On occasion, if the wind was just right, I could smell the rich earthy aroma of the sandy soil ridge where he scratched to get a better scent. There were some days I felt a deeper trust of the space and allowed myself to sit longer. On these days I’d witness a sort of magic on display on the surface of the land. The shadows, animated by the changing perspective of the sun, moved an otherwise inanimate landscape. I’d sense the changing temperature of the air and soil and feel, at one moment, the afternoon warmth brush my left cheek, and then, like turning a page in a book, an evening cool response on the right cheek.
It’s hard to imagine my life would be the same without my years spent gazing at the landscape of my youth. It’s fascinating to imagine our early human ancestors doing the same thing – watching how animals, like Sawyer, guide our psyche into hidden realms of the landscape, sitting patiently for nothing in particular except for maybe a mystery revealed and leaving us wanting for more.
Today at 38 years old I look back at this time of contemplative, contentful, and curious observation - I never once made a judgement of my experience. I only noticed and learned. But I didn’t learn the names of things or how processes and earths systems worked. I learned a kind of knowledge that goes beyond the intellect and into the deeper aspects of my humanity; what some call the interior landscape. I can’t help but think that, because I sat in an unconditional acceptance of this landscape, it’s forms and contours, its way of relating to me, that it also reminded me of who I am, and, like the topography of the land, also enlightened the contours of my life. This is what I’ve come to call ecoforma; a whole acceptance of the landscape as it is. As a byproduct of its acceptance, it also accepted me and provides a mutual nurturing relationship of transformation. Ecoforma is to imagine that every living thing, even though different on the surface in form and habit, mirrors one another in the deepest way. Ecoforma is the recognition that we cannot be human without the Earth or the land we walk on. Ecoforma is when our posture and way of being reciprocates this acceptance.
There were also mosquitos and ticks, poison ivy and sand burs. There were incredibly hot days and sometimes very cold days. I am aware that for some a particular landscape can trigger traumatic events in their life. Some landscapes can be confusing, mysterious, complex, or seem unsafe. In other words, discomfort and unpleasantness can sometimes interrupt the gaze of acceptance. Though I didn’t know it at the time, there were also invasive plant species that likely impeded the health of the forest. If I sat there today with the working knowledge that I have now, it would be easy for me to imagine managing the forest to be healthier or to manage its appearance and pleasantness so that there would be fewer interruptions. I might want to spray for mosquitos at the risk of culling birds and bats that require them. I may want to remove the shrubs and distorted trees so that I could see further into the woods and feel a comforting safety. Doing so would remove the hidden trails and nooks and crannies that Sawyer found delight in. I would lose whole registers of sounds that played among the different plant and insect communities. Maybe even the soil aroma would change. But I would feel safer from distraction and worry. If I were to do this, my relationship to the landscape would change and its transformative benefits alter. This relationship is what could be referred to as egoforma; where my concerns impose the needs of the ecosystem, economy, and the well-being of myself and others. It does not see the whole and or accept the whole. Egoforma forgets that to be human is also to be of the Earth. But it’s great at managing, controlling, and being productive. Egoforma is conditional.
Ecoforma and egoforma does not limit us from caring for a space. What they are attempting to describe is how our attitude or posture toward the landscape reveals to us the type of relationship we have to the land. In other words, the way we manage and view the landscape is a mirror into who we are.
Truthfully, we likely exist somewhere on a spectrum between the two that changes with time, mood, culture, knowledge, and life experience. Yet, as the complexity of world events continue to interrupt our awareness of safety and comfort it may be more necessary to liken ourselves toward an egoforma attitude.
The two words, ecoforma and egoforma, are created using two Latin words, ego/eco and forma, together. Eco, in Latin, means “relationship.” Ego, in Latin, means “I”. Forma, in Latin, means “form, contour, figure, shape; appearance, beauty, an outline, pattern, design, or condition.”