~ Kelly Bannister
If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.
–Rainer Maria Rilke
“What do you think is the opposite of artificial intelligence?” I asked my husband Ron. I had recently read Whitelaw Roshi’s Forbes article on leadership and AI. Ron paused before replying, considering the question, and probably wondering what his wife was up to. “Human intelligence,” he replied.
A quick online search confirmed he was correct. But I was feeling into a different response. “What about natural intelligence?” I suggested, thinking natural is the logical antonym of artificial. “No,” he said, “humans are the reference point for AI.”
So much for my logic – I discovered even the term “natural intelligence” is generally assumed to refer to the natural intelligence of humans rather than that of nature or natural systems. And “nature intelligence” has likewise been claimed by the nature educators, dubbed “NQ” and defined as “a multidimensional concept comprising human qualities to connect to nature in a cognitive, emotional and spiritual manner.”
But I was referring to an intelligence inherent within natural systems. Not something I have studied. More like something I have become aware of – felt first, thought about afterwards. Something that I sense exists and I am curious about. Seemingly related to, but not the same as, what Daniel Goleman calls “ecological intelligence,” which “allows us to comprehend systems in all their complexity, as well as the interplay between the natural and man-made worlds.”
But I wasn’t really thinking of us humans. I simply meant the tried, true and incredible intelligences inherent in natural systems that existed well before humans – like mechanosensation in slime molds that enables a unicellular blob to sense objects and process the sensory input to decide whether or not to grow in that direction. Or mycorrhizal relationships between fungi and plants that comprise 400-million-year-old systems of energy and nutrient exchange that essentially enable life on earth as we know it. Or even the quiet goings-on in my volunteer strawberry patch, which has created and sustained itself for years, against scientific odds.
Just prior to springing the AI question on my husband, I had come inside from a “training” session in the strawberry patch. I was midway through a three-week immersion in one of nature’s many “seasonal dojos” on our 10 acres. In other words, it was harvest time and I had not anticipated the abundance, nor the “all-at-onceness” of the ripening. I was ill-prepared for this sudden ask of me to drop everything and pick and process the harvest, but I was acutely aware of my commitment to the task before me. It was not a typical gardener’s sense of responsibility to the harvest, but an unwavering accountability to the strawberries themselves. Why? I could feel a koan emerging from the Strawberry Dojo.
I turned to the strawberry writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer from her book “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Kimmerer opens her chapter on “The Gift of Strawberries” in a way I immediately relate to: “I was raised by strawberries, fields of them.” In the Potawatomi language, Kimmerer says “the strawberry is ode min, the heart berry” and is recognized “as the leaders of the berries, the first to bear fruit.” She describes how strawberries shaped her understanding of the “gift economy,” referring to “goods and services not purchased but received as gifts from the earth”:
“Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery — as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source.”
All for free. Or so she thought. Kimmerer describes how her understanding evolved into a deep conviction about reciprocity and relational accountability:
“Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. The field gave to us, we gave to [others], and we tried to give back to the strawberries. When the berry season was done, the plants would send out slender red runners to make new plants. Because I was fascinated by the way they would travel over the ground looking for good places to take root, I would weed out little patches of bare ground where the runners touched down. Sure enough, tiny little roots would emerge from the runner and by the end of the season there were even more plants, ready to bloom under the next Strawberry Moon. No person taught us this — the strawberries showed us. Because they had given us a gift, an ongoing relationship opened between us.”
Kimmerer suggests the way an object comes to us – as gift or commodity – affects how we perceive, treat and relate to it. We may feel grateful for a commodity but we have no inherent obligation to something purchased – the reciprocity ends with the equal exchange of goods for currency. Receiving the same object as a gift changes everything:
“From the viewpoint of a private property economy, the “gift” is deemed to be “free” because we obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in the gift economy, gifts are not free. The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a ‘bundle of rights,’ whereas in a gift economy property has a ‘bundle of responsibilities’ attached.”
All helpful and relevant to my pondering of natural systems intelligence (and their currencies) in the Strawberry Dojo. But not sufficient to explain my felt sense. Beyond reciprocity and obligation, I had become a student of this strawberry community. And I was beholden to a service learning-like arrangement that had emerged of my own choices but not with any intention on my part. It feels a shade different than what Kimmerer writes about. Kimmerer was influenced by wild strawberry fields and her Indigenous teachings, and she contrasts the sacred gift of the wild with the store-bought commodity. I wonder how her perspective might shift through cultivating the commodity until it naturalized and re-wilded?
My unintended Strawberry Dojo is a gravel bed overtop a fabric weed barrier that prevents all but the hardiest weeds from taking root. It is an area that was intended to host raised garden beds – the nurtured spaces that I was raised to believe strawberries needed to thrive. But the strawberries escaped some years ago from our former beds and established themselves with startling vigor in the gravel – sans pampering, sans soil, and sans certain nutrients that science says strawberries need for proper pollination and to produce delicious fruit. Even sans watering until this year, when the usual Summer drought hit in early Spring. Finding myself already attached to the idea of a strawberry harvest, I compromised my “experiment of neglect.”
The experiment has been running for 5+ years now, using a mixed gardening methodology of curiosity, lack of time and laziness, meaning I have not followed ways the experts say a strawberry patch should be tended. For example, removing the mother plants after 3-4 years and cutting the runners between mother and daughter plants. Or fertilizing. I figured my luck would eventually run out and the gift would dry up. Maybe it will. But so far, mother and daughter plants alike keep equally producing fruit side-by-side, the overall harvest continues to increase, and my plant-thinning efforts have been only to create places to stand and pick amid the thickening strawberry carpet. I can’t deny it, I am convinced of a strawberry intelligence in my midst.
I feel a need to pause my story here and confess that maybe I am being a bit loose with the meaning of “intelligence.” So I look it up. And I find I’m not so far off. Author Richard Yonck addresses this very point in his latest book, Future Minds: The Rise of Intelligence from the Big Bang to the End of the Universe, saying it was “essential to properly define intelligence in an appropriate context” because it was so nebulously used, with over 200 definitions ranging from restrictive to broad to naïve. He refers to a 1998 interview with Marvin Minsky (co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) who calls intelligence a “suitcase word” because it represents a suitcase-like jumble of different ideas with many meanings and associations. According to Minsky, “We use these words as suitcases in which to contain all sorts of mysteries that we can’t yet explain.”
Unpacking the suitcase, Yonck defines intelligence as:
“An emergent system’s ability to respond to its environment in order to improve its conditions, perpetuate itself and maximize its future freedom of action.”
Yonck goes on to say how this definition “allows intelligence to be seen much more as an almost inherent property of the universe, something that isn’t limited to a single species or substrate, but which is an ongoing optimization in those systems that are able to successfully perpetuate themselves into the future.” Yonck starts to sound like the poet Rilke.
Back to the Strawberry Dojo – my temporary training grounds for life learnings and practices guided by intelligences of natural systems. All of this now feels as much a part of my Zen training as zazen, perhaps due to my involvement in Perma Leadership. I offer a peak through the imaginary doorway of my dojo:
- Squatting for hours, diligently selecting the ripe berries and leaving those not quite, finding the rhythm, method and posture that is efficient enough for my body to do what is needed without creating injury, too much fatigue or getting too much sun (a bit like weeding the grounds at Chozen-Ji in Hawaii) – an opportunity for physical training with the elements.
- Conscientiously picking the over-ripe, wizened and bird-pecked fruit to give to our strawberry guard dog Jessie, who diligently waits at the edges for her reward. Then processing the harvest by eating berries fresh, freezing, drying, cooking, baking – all an opportunity to deepen my commitment to stewardship and minimal waste, even when (ironically) abundance can feel like a burden and I sometimes just want to ignore or compost the lesser-than ideal berries.
- Reaching as-skillfully-as-possible around the tent caterpillars who took up residence in the strawberries. This was after I negotiated with myself whether they were to be crushed or coexisted with. They are a native species here, as inconvenient as that may be. Crushing weirdly felt out of place in this particular space, so coexisting has prevailed – an opportunity for fine motor skills precision, respect and interconnectedness training in the presence of an ick factor.
- The strawberries nourishing my family and me, our friends, the dog, the robins and the caterpillars; me nourishing the mosquitoes; all of us contributing in some way to reproduction and continuity of the plant community – opportunities for reciprocity training, both intentional and opportunistic.
Circling back to my ponderings while training in the Strawberry Dojo, about artificial, human, and natural systems intelligences, I’ll close with more strawberry writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer:
“Our human relationship with strawberries is transformed by our choice of perspective. It is human perception that makes the world a gift. When we view the world this way, strawberries and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal. A species and a culture that treat the natural world with respect and reciprocity will surely pass on genes to ensuing generations with a higher frequency than the people who destroy it.”
What I know is my relationship with strawberries has been transformed by my perception of the strawberry community – generous, resilient, perseverant, cooperative, inclusive and non-discriminating, just, interconnected, self-sufficient, benevolent and faithful. Strawberry has become more than just a fruit of my labor. Strawberry is my teacher, training partner, provider, surprisingly unneedy recipient of my stewardship, an ongoing source of inspiration, admiration and fascination, and sometimes a lot of work.
At this point, I am unsure what will come of AI or how closely, as a Zen Leader, I want to follow, make use of, or fall into the trappings of that inevitable part of our future. What I am sure of is a whole-hearted commitment to cultivating a reciprocal relationship with the “heart berry” form of intelligence that I experience in the Strawberry Dojo, and learning from other inherent intelligences of the universe. As per Rilke’s encouragement, I can surrender to this.
Kelly Bannister is a Zen Leadership practitioner and ZL Instructor.
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