Posted by: chrismaser | December 7, 2010


Everything in the universe is a “source” of something. A “resource,” on the other hand, is a different issue altogether—a human issue.

If you think about the word “resource,” it may strike you that it really depicts a self-reinforcing feedback loop, like all relationships in the universe. “Re-source,” means to use something as a “source,” and in “re”-turn to be the source of its “re”-newal. To “re-source.”

In this sense, everything we humans use for our benefit is a resource, the problem lies in our human unconsciousness, which allows us to take so much of the Earth’s productive capacity and its free biophysical services for granted. But as the human population grows, the equitable distribution of resources becomes evermore disparate, especially with respect to succeeding generations.

Consider, for example, that living organisms (which collectively form the species that collectively form the communities as they spread over the land and fill the seas) join the myriad constituents of diversity itself, such as the scales of time, space, and temperature, and the processes that shape the Earth. Together, the nonliving, physical elements and the living organisms have molded and remolded the earthscape in an ever-changing kaleidoscope. These organisms, through the exchange medium of the soil, are influenced by short-term ecological limitations even as they influence those same limitations through their life cycles. The interactions of communities and soil are controlled and influenced by the long-term dynamics that coincidentally form the three, interactive spheres of our earthscape: the atmosphere (air), the litho-hydrosphere (the rock that constitutes the restless continents and the water that surrounds them), and the biosphere (the life forms that exist within the other two spheres).

We humans, however, arbitrarily delineate our seamless world into discrete ecosystems as we try to understand the fluid interactions between nonliving and living components of planet Earth. In doing so, we are attempting to carve space into neat, fragmented packages around which we can build discrete mental fences. But, if you picture the interconnectivity of the three spheres as being analogous to the motion of a waterbed, you will see how patently impossible such divisions are, because you cannot touch any part of a waterbed without affecting the whole of it.1 Think, for instance, about darkness and light, silence and sound, emptiness and form.

Darkness and Light

According to Christian tradition, “. . .darkness was upon the face of the deep. . . .” And God said, “Let there be light: and there was light,” but the light of what—the first star?

Ever since light first challenged the eternal reign of darkness, there has been a cosmic dance between darkness and light, light and darkness—as one waxes while the other wanes and vice verse. Yet even in the brightest of days, an object blocking the sun’s rays casts a teasing shadow of eternal darkness. These shadows, be they of an immovable boulder, a proud human, a humble mouse, a swaying flower, a flitting butterfly, or a traveling cloud are to remind us that when the sun at last burns itself into oblivion, eternal darkness shall once again prevail and the Earth shall become a barren and frozen land enveloped in endless night.

When, I wonder, did the first hominid consciously connect the night sky with the portal of wonder and a sense of connectedness with the cosmos enveloping Earth? When did the first human create the first story to be immortalized in the constellations of eternal night? When did the portal of wonder, illuminated by the countless points of light in the back vault of night’s heaven, become the entrance to untold possibilities entrusted to the growing consciousness of humanity? When was the first myth, the chronicle of humanity’s journey of self-discovery, entrusted to the stars as an archived of light in eternal darkness? When was the cosmic dance of darkness and light fragmented into opposites in the human psyche? When, I wonder, did the first hominid consciously connect “good” with the light of day and “evil” with the darkness of night?

This single idea, and the psychological ramifications it spawned, has divided humanity against itself in an ever-unfolding story of judgment and violence that continues to reverberate throughout the world. The “characters” within the story have familiar names, the juxtaposition of which all point to a single plot of perceived duality: light versus darkness; good versus evil; right versus wrong; us versus them. The irony is that of virtually every religion created in the light of this set of dualities seems to spend the majority of its time fighting, with word and sword, gun and bomb over which is the most peaceful.

Silence and Sound

Without silence, there would be no sound because nothing can exist without its apparent opposite to act as a mirror in which to know its reflection.

Without silence, no sound is possible. Conversely, without sound, silence could not be recognized for itself. I have experienced the eternal silence while camping in the deep snows of winter high in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, while rescuing cattle stuck in deep snow high in a Rocky-Mountain winter of northwestern Colorado, and in the Nubian Desert of Egypt. Silence on a still day in deep winter in the high country is so profound that, as a young man, I not only could “hear” it but also the “swishing” sound snowflakes made as they fell through it. In the Nubian Desert, on the other hand, there was nothing on a still day to rupture the silence—not the slightest sound could I detect, no matter how hard I stained my ears to hear.

Had I not experienced the Eternal Silence, would it exist for me? Would I recognize it in our increasingly noisy world? Hence the age-old question: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound? Of course it does because mice hear it, and squirrels hear it, as do the creatures living below ground that feel the vibrations it sends through the soil as it strikes the Earth. I would, therefore, rephrase the question thusly: If a tree falls in the forest and there is nothing to hear it or to feel the impact of its falling, does it make a sound? Vibrations are, after all, the essence of sound. This being the case, one might ask: What is the essence of eternal silence, if not the absence of audible vibrations in eternal emptiness?

Emptiness (Space) and Form

Without emptiness, form could not exist; without form, emptiness would not know itself and thus would not exist.

In the beginning, there is sand, which is composed of silicates and calcium carbonate. When the sand is melted at very high temperatures, the elements fuse and form glass. If a glassblower than fills a glob of molten glass with air by blowing into it through a hollow tube, the glass expands to form whatever shape the glassblower chooses to create. However, as the glass expands into its predetermined shape, it “pushes” against the emptiness of space without even as that selfsame emptiness “fills” it within, which allows the glass to hold its shape when it cools.

If, therefore, a glassblower fills molten glass with air, creating a glass ball, and leaves the hollow tube in place while the glass is still molten, the ball will collapse inward on itself because the pressure of the emptiness of space without is greater than that within. But if the glassblower seals the hole, the emptiness within the molten glass ball is trapped and will cause the ball to hold its form as it cools into a solid shape—despite the pressure from the emptiness without.

Now, if we consider a vase, which is open at one end in order to hold water and flowers, the unity of eternal emptiness is uninterrupted in its flow within and without the vase. On the other hand, eternal emptiness may at times be restricted within the vase by filling it with water, only to be restored when the vase is emptied and once again filled with eternal emptiness, that which gives the vase its form. Here, the paradox is that only the presence of eternal emptiness can give the vase form and thereby hold its shape. So it is that all form arises from eternal emptiness, is sustained by it, and returns to it.

Emptiness has an invisible power from which patterns emerge, much as a vase on a potter’s wheel forms itself around the active presence of a hollow, without which the vase could not exist. The vase, the external shell of a specifically shaped void, holds emptiness within itself. From India, the Heart Sutra:

. . . form is no other than emptiness,

Emptiness is no other than form;

Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form,

. . . all phenomena are emptiness/form.2

Are darkness and light, silence and sound, emptiness and form resources? Yes, no, and that depends. We define “resource” as anything for which we see a value—such as “open space” in community planning; “sound-proof” rooms; recreational space, where we seek “peace and quiet;” and so much light by which to abate our fear of the dark that we are driving some species to extinction a hundred or more miles from our over-lit cities.3 The challenge, however, is that our thinking is almost completely self-centered. We seldom consider space as a requirement of life forms other than our own, and then only in the above-ground dimension.

Yes, space is a resource, as Thorsten E.E. Grams and Ulrich Lüttge elucidate in their excellent essay, “Space as a Resource.”4 In this case, however, the “space” referred to is really not “empty” per se, but rather is devoid of human activity and thus available for other life forms to use, such as soil, where plants and their roots can grow unhindered by human endeavors. Yes, available space is a resource throughout the universe—a resource we humans take for granted. Here, the challenge for humanity is to understand that we, too often, value something only after we lose it.

We must remember that soil is a bank of elements and water that provides the matrix for the biological processes involved in the cycling of elements that become nutrients under the right conditions of concentration and availability to plants. In fact, of the sixteen chemical elements required for life, plants obtain all but three—carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen—from the soil. The soil stores these essential elements in undecomposed litter and in living tissues and recycles them from one reservoir to another at rates determined by a complex of biological processes and climatic factors.

As soil scientist Walter C. Lowdermilk (1888-1974) wrote, “If the soil is destroyed, then our liberty of choice and action is gone, condemning this and future generations to needless privations and dangers.” To rectify society’s careless actions, Lowdermilk composed what has been called the “Eleventh Commandment,” which demands the full and unified attention of every gardener, farmer, rancher, forester, urban developer, and ordinary citizen if we are to fulfill our role as trustees of planet Earth for the benefit of all generations—not just ours:

When in Palestine in 1939, as I pondered the problems of the use of the land through the ages, I wondered if Moses, when he was inspired to deliver the Ten Commandments to the Israelites in the Desert to establish mans relationship to his Creator, and to his fellow men—if Moses had foreseen what was to become of the Promised Land after 3000 years and what was to become of hundreds of millions of acres of once good lands such as I have seen in China, Korea, North Africa, the Near East and in our own fair land of America—if Moses had foreseen what suicidal agriculture would do to the land of the Holy Earth, he might not have been inspired to deliver another Commandment to establish mans relation to the earth and to complete mans trinity of responsibilities to his Creator, to his fellow men and to the Holy Earth. When invited to broadcast a talk on soil conservation in Jerusalem in June, 1939, I gave for the first time what has been called the Eleventh Commandment, as follows:

Thou shalt inherit the Holy Earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation. Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from soil erosion, thy living waters from drying up, thy forests from desolation, and protect thy hills from overgrazing by thy herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever. If any shall fail in this stewardship of the land, thy fruitful fields shall become sterile stony ground and wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from off the face of the earth.”5

Here, it is important to keep in mind that fertile soil—like good-quality water—is one of the pillars of sustainable community. Destroy the fertility of soil, destroy its ability to breathe through compaction, choke it with petrochemicals, and nothing else we do in the way of social-environmental sustainability will much matter because soil is the stage on which all human life ultimately depends onto everlasting. Destroy the stage, and the play becomes a progressive tragedy until it is fades into oblivion and is no more.

Social-environmental sustainability is our individual and collective life’s journey of ever-increasing consciousness of cause and effect—not an achievable endpoint. I say this because change is a constant process that endows all life with eternal novelty, the tradeoff being that nothing is truly reversible. To wit, once “open space,” that which is unspoiled by human endeavors, is gone, it is gone—and with it any hope for a dignified life imbued with even a modicum of real quality! Why? Because we will, in our blind, self-indulgence have destroyed the soil—the placenta that supports terrestrial life as we know it. Why, you might ask again, and I would answer because, in our arrogant stubbornness, we value only what we see above ground, only what we can convert into products, and thus money. Our human challenge, therefore, is knowing when enough is enough—and accept it.

Related Posts:

• Why Be Concerned With The Building Blocks Of Sustainable Planning

• The Negotiability Of Constraints

• Feedback Loops

• Of Human Relationships And Social-Environmental Sustainability

• Grieving For Our Environmental/Social Losses

• Transportation—Efficiency Or Effectiveness, A Choice Of Focus

• Open Space—A Biophysical And Cultural Necessity

• An Urgent Plea For Open Space

• Surrounding Landscape

• Riparian Areas And Floodplains

• Restoration Of A Specific Condition Is Not Possible


  1. The preceding two paragraphs are from: Chris Maser. Earth In Our Care: Ecology, Economy, and Sustainability. 2009. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. 304 pp.

  2. The discussion of darkness and light, silence and sound, emptiness and form are from: Chris Maser. Of Paradoxes and Metaphors: Understanding Some of Life’s Lessons. 2008. Woven Strings Publishing, Amarillo, TX. 264 pp. E-Book 254KB.

  3. (1) Brittany L. Bird, Lyn C. Branch, and Deborah L. Miller. Effects of Coastal Lighting on Foraging Behavior of Beach Mice. Conservation Biology 18 (2004):1435–1439; (2) Ben Harder. Light All Night. Science News 169 (2006):170–172; and (3) Robert F. Baldwin and Stephen C. Trombulak. “Losing the Dark: A Case for a National Policy on Land Conservation,” Conservation Biology 21 (2007):1133–1134.

  4. Thorsten E.E. Grams and Ulrich Lüttge. 2010. Space as a Resource. Ulrich Lüttge et al. (eds.), Progress in Botany 72, DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-13145-5_13,349.

  5. The above quote by Lowdermilk and the preceding two paragraphs are from: Walter C. Lowdermilk. 1942. Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years. Agriculture Information Bulletin 99. Natural Resources Conservation Service, Washington, D.C.

Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.


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