Conservation Blog

AVATAR Part 2: Envisioning Another Reality

Scene from the movie, AVATAR
Date Added: October 29, 2014

AVATAR:  A Legend of Biosynergy, Compassion & Union

by: Anthony L. Rose, Ph.D. and Anna Gabriela Rose
The Biosynergy Institute, Palos Verdes, California USA

Part 2:   Envisioning Another Reality

To produce the movie AVATAR, James Cameron and his colleagues escaped the persistent blindness and reported with utmost brilliance! They constructed a planet to contrast our own, and called it Pandora: a place where living beings are united in loving spirit and entwined in common ancestral history and karmic opportunity. A place endowed with clans of great and powerful beasts that coexist in harmony, roam the jungles and soar the skies sensitive to each other’s natures, commune in mutual service to the greater good, mingle spirits in the glistening ever-present synergy of eternal life.

But the film-makers threw a wrench in the works. Cameron and company invented a flock of self-righteous human invaders and sent them to fly their space ships to Pandora. The planet’s indigenous human-like beings called these interlopers “the Sky People.”

The “Sky People” traveled in inter-planetary warships from an ecologically shattered earth to conquer and pillage the mineral resources of Pandora – the lush and life-rich moon of a far-off giant planet. Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-marine, joined the mission to be freed from the confines of his wheelchair and to experience the vigorous life of an avatar. His solo adventure in a holomorphic body designed to emulate the planet’s humanoid inhabitants – the Navi – begins with exhilaration but soon turns tragic. Jake stumbles into the forest den of giant rhinoceros-like creatures that recognize him as an invader and roar their warning to him. Rather than kneel down submissively and lower his eyes in respect, he turns and runs. The creatures pursue him.

The Navi princess, Neytiri, emerges from her hiding place in time to kill the lead creature just before it crushes Jake. This causes the other behemoths to run away. Jake Sully possessed the body of a Navi warrior, but was blind to nature’s ways and had put himself and other animals at mortal risk. The human proclivity to flee in terror was insane behavior for the human-Navi avatar who had invaded the lair of great beasts of the forest. The right response was to kneel and bow in reverence. When Moha, the mother-queen of the Navi people, learned of his transgression, she told Jake how he might overcome his madness and acquire the Navi capacity to SEE.

Moha: “Do as we do, and learn it well. Then we will see if your insanity can be cured.” (Cameron, Avatar, 2009)

The insane terrors that cause humans to fear, flee, or fight those other beings who are strange to us have been imbedded in our psyches and our societies for millennia. They emerged when we shifted from collaborating with earth-life to conquering and controlling it: from gathering and hunting to farming and industrializing. Entwined with our mad sense of God-given dominion is a projected negativity about the natural world. We diminish wild animals to the status of mindless-heartless hostile beasts, and consider humans who commune with and protect wildlife to be fools standing in the way or our righteous hegemony. Still, there are women and men who have set aside their terror and elected to follow experienced guides in search of the beast in his lair.

In 1984 my wife and I traveled from urban Los Angeles through Paris to Kigali and trekked up Mt. Karisoke to visit with mountain gorillas. Two men who, like the Navi, were attuned to nature in these primeval rain forests led us on the trek to find the Sumi group. Back home people thought us insane to attempt this adventure. When I expressed my concerns, the Rwandan guides merely shrugged and told me to follow their lead. Six hours later we came upon a large troop of shaggy black haired apes of all sizes. Exhaustion turned to exhilaration! When a male gorilla stood to face us and pound his chest, a surge of terror almost compelled me to turn and run. Obedient to my guides and my experience with other primates, I dropped to my knees and lowered my head. The great silver back huffed and the gorillas returned to their repast. I didn’t possess the body of a gorilla tracker – far from it. But I did as my guides did, honored the gorilla’s preeminence, and was privileged to SEE our kindred great ape cousins in their peaceable world. (Anthony Rose)

We who have faced the beasts and been accepted by them have begun to restore our sanity. Since that profound event in the Ruwenzori Mountains I’ve traveled the world to SEE and commune with other great apes, as well as elephants and rhinos, dolphins and sharks, tigers and lions, wolves and bears, and scores of other animals. Discussing these kinds of experiences with hundreds of fellow travelers, I’ve found that interspecies epiphanies turn fear of nature into fondness for it (Rose, 1998/2006). This discovery has informed my work with colleagues across equatorial Africa to undertake conservation education programs that promote compassion and biosynergy (Rose, 1996b; Rose et al, 2003, 2008).

It was an encounter with another silverback gorilla that moved me directly onto the path of compassionate conservation. After meeting Dr. Penny Patterson at a Great Ape Conference in Malaysia in 1998, I visited her research station at The Gorilla Foundation in California.

I brought a long strand of brightly colored cloth from Cameroon as a gift for Koko and Michael. Koko played tug-a-war with me gently for a while: then Michael asked for “that blue want.” I tore a three foot section off and stuck an end through the fence into his enclosure. He took it between thumb and forefinger, crumpled the end into his fist, stared into my eyes, and yanked. I let go, just escaping a harsh skin-burn, and watched the rest of the cloth trail slowly into his enclosure. Had I held on, my hand would surely have been broken, smashed against the fence. Michael watched me rub my palm and I watched him sniff, taste, and tangle the cloth around his hands and arms. In barely a minute he dropped it and came closer to the fence, to watch me. Then he asked Penny to “give that” -- he wanted me to come into the enclosure with him.

Michael — the sensitive silverback (Photo by Ron Cohn)
Michael held on to the fence and I stared at his huge fingers. I wanted to join him. My pulse quickened as I imagined him holding my hand fully enclosed in his palm, his warm breath and musky aroma soaking into my pours, the leathery skin and coarse hair rubbing against my face and arms, the enormous metal-hard muscles of his chest and arms engulfing my shoulders and torso. It would be surrender -- giving myself back to the primordial ancestor. Resting in the safety of that father-protector we all dream of – encompassed by a dark and mysterious past.

To join Michael would be the test of an evolution we both sensed in our bones, a regression to that eternal Eden from which man and ape continue to ascend. We are brother beings, Michael and I, evolving as leaves on one branch, harkening back in our eyes and our fingertips to the moment when one walked out of the forest and the other stayed. Might we spark some genetic recognition, ignite the atoms of our common DNA, uncover the infrastructure of kinship -- if we were to touch, to breathe the same air, to embrace? Would he recognize my yearning for communion, accept my faith in our heritage, withhold his capacity to crush and allow me to live, despite those men whom he remembered having murdered his mother and father when he was an infant in an African rainforest?

I sat down in front of the door to his enclosure and tried to tell him that I would love to join him, but could not. He seemed to understand. Michael ambled over to the crushed blue cloth, picked it up, and pushed it through the other side of the fence into Koko’s enclosure. He then moved off to the far corner of his outdoor area and turned his back to our potential friendship.

“I’ll be back, Michael ... another time,” I said. (Rose AL 2002) 

Michael died before I could return to visit him. The stress protecting his adopted family of apes and humans seized his heart at age 28. Michael was the only Africa-born great ape to learn sign language. I wrote a book about his life, his bravery and his compassion (Rose & Patterson, 2002). One morning at age eight Mike awoke in a sweat and told his caregiver about a dream – a nightmare of the day he had witnessed men murder and butcher his mother in the rainforest where he was born. He later described his dream many times; it was a childhood trauma he’d never forget.

When we talk about Michael’s story with Africans, they often recite the popular folktale of a hunter who had compassion for a mother gorilla after she begged him not to make her baby an orphan. These forest people whose ancestors revered gorillas had learned from colonialists that woodlands and wildlife were simply resources to be exploited for money. Their taboos against eating apes must be revived, and Michael’s story helps that happen. But the invaders from other continents, like the Sky people in Avatar who travel to primeval planets for power and profit, are infected with a deadly insanity. Again, it is blindness that keeps the insanity safe from exposure and treatment. Photographer Karl Ammann had tried in vain to get major media to publish his photos of the horror in Africa for six years, before I joined him in the struggle. It took us another six years to produce a book that would open the eyes of the political leaders of Europe, Africa, and America (Rose et al, 2003-4).

Another decade has passed, and the blindness has been overcome in all but the most ignorant and self-centered of people. Open-minded citizens, politicians, conservationists, business and religious leaders, loggers and poachers, prime ministers and UN ambassadors have acknowledged the terrible result of our all-consuming madness. Human folly exposed, we still must ask “can our insanity be cured?”

The above essay is based on — Rose, Anthony L. and A. Gabriela Rose, AVATAR: The search for biosynergy and compassion, Pp 361-377 in Beckoff (Ed), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.


About the Authors

Anthony Rose, social psychologist, biosynergist, and author has been promoting the synergy of humanity and nature for three decades. His global explorations of biosynergy and his investigations of interspecies empathy are reported in scores of books, films, and professional journals. Rose’s work as wildlife protector and conservation educator has introduced psychosocial and spiritual dimensions into a field in dire need of new visionary approaches. His search for biosynergy, compassion, and union begins in Palos Verdes and Warner Springs, California, and reaches around the world.
Gabriela Rose is a developmental psychologist and horsewoman devoted to facilitating the learning of people challenged by special needs. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA, teaches at a school for autistic children, and is training in the practice of equine assisted therapy. Her interest in compassionate bonds between people and other animals began in childhood with horses and was reinforced by interactions with gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, and hippos in Africa and with dolphins and monkeys in Mexico and Central America.


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