McLennan explores Zugunruhe at Eagle Harbor Books
March 18, 2011 · Updated 12:04 PM
The rufous hummingbird has returned to Bainbridge Island. The males arrive first, scoping out good territory, one with plentiful food and water with protection from the elements and predators. Female hummers follow a few weeks later.
So how does a bird with a brain smaller than a pea manage to negotiate what seems to be an impossible task: a 1,000-mile epic migration?
Well, for one thing, animals are acutely aware of their environment. They act on internal urges that guide their behavior in the best interest of their species.
For instance, just before migration, humming birds exhibit behaviors that indicate a sense of anxiousness or agitation. There’s a German word for this: Zugunruhe (tsuk ‘un-ru‘he) which combines “Zug” (move, migration) and “Unruhe” (anxiety, restlessness).
Bainbridge author Jason F. McLennan thinks the concept of Zugunruhe provides important lessons for another species facing a formidable challenge: ours.
He began writing his new book, “Zugunruhe: The Inner Migration to Profound Environmental Change,” when many in the field of sustainability came to him asking how they could become even more effective. “They had felt compelled. They had this ‘migratory restlessness’ even if they didn’t know why or what to do next. They just knew they had to do something,” McLennan said.
This gnawing uneasiness is part of the process. Rather than fearing (or numbing) these internal cues, McLennan thinks it’s important to pay attention to them because they signal a coming change which will require adaptation.
People used to be more tuned in to the environment, McLennan said. Out of necessity we had a hairs-on-the-back-of-our-neck awareness of the natural world, noticing changes in weather patterns or the level of the water table.
But McLennan likens us now to the frog in a pot. You’ve heard this one: The first frog is put in a pot of boiling water and immediately jumps out. A second frog is put into warm water that is then heated over a fire. Because the water gets hot gradually, the frog doesn’t notice. When it comes to responding to environmental issues, McLennan said we’re frog No. 2.
“We’re not very good at responding to long-range threats,” he said.
Some people believe it will take (yet another) catastrophe before we take action.
“I’m more hopeful than that,” McLennan said.
“I’ve seen what’s possible in environmental restoration when people decide it’s important. I think there’s an emerging consciousness. There’s a growing group of people who are ‘getting this.’ And you don’t have to reach everyone. There’s a critical mass you can reach. We’re not there yet, but actually, we’re getting pretty close.”
McLennan will discuss the concept of Zugunruhe, the agitation that precedes great migrations, at a reading at 7:30 p.m. March 24 at Eagle Harbor Book Company.
“There are plenty of books out there that are externally focused, about how to green your life,” he said. “Very few focus on the internal journey, on how to become a change agent, an agent of hope. Zugunruhe is a cross between an environmental and a self-help book.”
For instance, one of the barriers to becoming more effective in making a difference is a cultural fear of sharing ideas, he said.
“People are reluctant to put their ideas forward. They’re afraid they won’t be good enough, won’t make a difference. We tend to identify with our ideas, as if they are us. And if people don’t like the idea, it means they don’t like us. That we’re not good enough.”
McLennan thinks collaboration, which requires overcoming this fear of sharing, is essential for future success. He paints another metaphor (are you seeing a pattern here?) about the secret all good cooks know: stop baking when the dish is three-quarters done.
We’ve seen enough half-baked ideas, he said, that we err on the other side of the spectrum, becoming paralyzed by a sense of perfectionism.
“What is missing in our culture, and in the environmental movement to a large extent, is our willingness to thrust ourselves out there on that seemingly fragile limb where failure is likely to occur repeatedly,” McLennan wrote in his book.
“So we remain timid and stick to small, safe goals while every natural system on the planet is in a free fall. We would rather succeed and make little difference than fail trying to make significant change.”
McLennan said the three-quarter baked idea is not only good enough, but preferable. It allows the community and the universe to contribute to its unfolding.
“Ideas take on a life of their own. You’ll be surprised who gets involved, how many others are thinking the same thing.”
In this case, McLennan collaborated with local editor/writer Mary Adam Thomas to help midwife the new book into being.
“I have a busy life. I run several organizations,” McLennan said. “Mary made the book possible.”
McLennan, who was featured this week in a YES! Magazine article about scale, is the CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council; author of the Living Building Challenge, an international green building program; and co-creator of Pharos, a building material rating system in North America. One of his four books, “The Philosophy of Sustainable Design,” is currently used as a textbook in more than 60 universities and colleges.
Flock to this one
McLennan will discuss the concept of Zugunruhe, the title of his new book, at a reading at 7:30 p.m. March 24 at Eagle Harbor Book Company.
For more information, visit www.eagleharborbooks.com.