Friday, May 29, 2009

Control = Surrender?

As we came back to our guesthouse on Ko Mook from snorkelling off Ko Chu-ah, the tide was very low, exposing the extensive mud flats offshore of Ko Mook. Our boats went in as far as they could and we walked the rest of the way in to the island. While a long pier juts out a little ways down along the road to remedy (partially) this problem, it is not used much by local residents. Instead, they walk and haul their catch sometimes 150 yards, preferring to leave their boats cradled in the soft intertidal zone. Thinking about another extreme, NYC, where every shoreline has been extended with landfill and concrete piers, it seems in many ways the villagers on Ko Mook have got it right.

The night before, students reflected on how people here seem to have stronger relationships with natural cycles and phenomena than we do in the U.S. This has been a recurring theme throughout my time here in Thailand. In part because of the favorable climate, folks are able to incorporate a lot of outdoor space into their primary living area and seem to like this set-up despite the bugs and rain and critters passing through. Nature still has the upper hand in the local community on Ko Mook, as well. Low season for the tourism industry occurs during the monsoon season when the channel is too choppy for the island's small boats to safely transport visitors. On a stormy day, the fishermen stay on shore and talk with their friends or do chores around the house rather than brave the elements as larger trawlers are able to do. Women follow the tides out and collect clams on the mud flats, only one example of how intimately their lives are tied to the moon cycle.

I thought about the 2004 tsunami in terms of this flexibility people exhibit in their relationships with non-human cycles. While the tsunami did cause considerable damage up and down the Andaman coast, imagine the scale of damage that would have occurred if the massive waves had hit D.C. or NYC instead. From a view of the global economy, the destruction of property and productivity on the American east coast would be much higher (monetarily). In non-monetary terms, a natural disaster might be just as devastating to an island community in Thailand as to downtown NYC. But in this case, might flexibility in relationship with nature mean more control, more resilience, more power?

When learning tai chi last semester, my instructor told the class how what is often seen as weakness can be strength. She mentioned a tai chi master who uses "yielding" in brilliant ways to outdo an opponent during a martial arts competition. Often, a display of force can be outdone by yielding, and the opponent falls. Transferring this idea to natural disaster preparedness and the ability of communities to bounce back after a disturbance, perhaps yielding to non-human nature is a good path. Allowing some of those resorts to revert back to mangrove swamps, rehabilitating the wetlands around NYC-- in short, seeking to work in concert with nature rather than impose our every will on it-- will result in stronger, healthier communities.

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