Allens Pond and Environmental Qigong
by Stephen & Marcia Rath
To the reader, it might seem counter-intuitive to draw parallels between an ancient Chinese health system, Qigong, and environmental stewardship. But quite simply, both can be described as practices that seek to remove blockages and hazards in a dynamic system—personal and ecological respectively—that prevent the system from maintaining health and self-regulation. In some cases, the two disciplines even use the same term: dredging.
Recently, I spoke with my cousin, Lloyd Macdonald, about a tidal estuary located at the Western end of Barney’s Joy. Our grandfather, Demarest Lloyd, purchased the property in 1931, and great care has been taken over the years to maintain the fragile ecosystem of the estuary and pond. According to Lloyd, the opening of Allen’s Pond migrates from east to west until the accumulation of sand begins to seal off the opening to the sea. The opening has been dredged periodically since before WWII, and one former caretaker at Barney’s Joy even remembered the opening being broadened by horse and plow.
If the opening is not periodically dredged, the results can be profound. Less than a decade ago, it was deemed that a new channel through the beach should not be dredged until late summer because dredging would plow through the seasonal population of nesting Plovers. With the estuary sealed off from the rejuvenating waters of the ocean, the salt-adapted flora and fauna suffered from a buildup of comparatively fresh water along with a decline of oxygen in the water table. Consequently, the basin filled like a bathtub and became stagnant, which devastated an ecosystem comprising of mollusks, crabs, fish, birds, and other wildlife. Eight years later, Allens Pond is still adjusting to the effects of those three months of containment.
It is important to note that human intervention for the past 3+ generations has maintained Allens Pond as an estuary, rather than a pond. As an estuary, humans place a high value on its associated pristine salt marsh, rich tide flats, productive nesting beach, and vibrant fish nursery. As a coastal salt pond, these features would wax and wane over very long intervals that far outstrip the human scale. Left to nature, disruptions such as blocked tidal flow would be a predictable phase in the cycle and provide both loss and opportunity in the rebalancing of a system that is by its very nature ever-changing. Gina Purtell, Sanctuary Director at MA Audubon Allens Pond, views the recent disruption with that in mind:
Allens Pond (and the salt marsh, dunes, barrier beach associated with it) will always be recovering because it is a dynamic system. Pond closure is to be expected; estuary maintenance is our choice. Re-balancing after a disruption (natural or not) is part of the dynamic. In our role as stewards, we shine light on the inputs and efforts from the human-world that affect the cycle, and hope to influence choices that promote values we hold dear.
Another hazard in the environment, eutrophication, occurs from the runoff of sewage, fertilizers, or phosphates into a water system. This activates a superabundance of plant and algae growth that causes a deficiency of oxygen in the water environment. Like the closing off of Allens Pond, negative effects include the death of aquatic animals and the loss of diversity throughout the ecosystem.
In the human body, stagnation and toxins similarly compromise the health of an individual. Western medicine now describes sitting as the new smoking and asserts that individuals who sit for prolonged periods—four hours or more—increase their risk of dying from a myriad of illnesses, including heart disease, cancers, and type two diabetes. Frequent breaks and even standing while working are recommended to eliminate the effects of prolonged sitting. Moreover, exercises such as Tai Chi, Qigong, and yoga are useful because they can be done anywhere and with any kind of clothing and are effective in releasing stagnation through gentle movements, such as bending and twisting.
Qi is defined as the vital essence or life force that animates all living things and Gong means exercise or work; so Qigong means vital energy work. As early as the Shang Dynasty (1600–1045 BCE), traditional Chinese medical practitioners diagrammed twelve channels in the body, known as meridians, through which vital energy flows to organs and every living cell. Functionally, they act like rivers and tributaries within the body.
Where stagnation or blockages exist in these channels—through injury, trauma, or lack of activity—disease follows. Moreover, the Chinese word for cancer translates to “dead pool” and describes a disease borne of stagnation. Qigong, then, is the practice of moving Qi energy through the meridians to maintain health and vitality. These practical exercises commonly use breath, movement, proper alignment, and meditation to improve the flow of Qi. Practitioners of medical Qigong (including doctors of Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, and acupressure) also employ a technique called meridian dredging, in which they palpate channels beneath the skin in order to find areas of pain. By massaging those points along the meridian, stagnation and blockages are removed from the channels; and, like the dredging of Allens Pond, the flow of vital energy is restored throughout the body. With practice, individuals can experience the 24-hour cycle of energy in their own bodies and see how it correlates with occurrences such as seasons, time of day, weather, and tides, to name a few.
As a functional analogy, Environmental Qigong may be a useful term to illuminate universal principles in a dynamic system such as Allens Pond, which needs movement, detoxification—and, when all else fails, interventions like dredging—to maintain self-regulation and health. As a final word, Marcia and I studied with a Grandmaster of Qigong, who emphasized time and time again that humans are intimately, if not inextricably, linked with the environment. He would sweep his arms in a grand gesture and say, in a baritone voice, “Out there, big universe.” Then he would tap his chest and add, “In here, little universe.” At this point he would fold his hands together and say, almost in a whisper, “Both need each other—both together.”
Qigong classes will be going on throughout the fall (dates will be posted soon).