Hózhó and the commons

A friend in Wellfleet, Ernie Bauer, makes things of function and beauty, especially in metal. A few years ago he made a sculpture inspired by the Navajo word, Hózhó. It stands near the post office and WHAT, the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.

You can see it and its shadow in the photo above.

Hózhó is often translated as ‘balance and beauty’; it can also be seen as harmony, finding peace amidst the jagged ups and downs of life.

Hózhó also emphasizes how ephemeral aspects of the world can be linked into a more significant whole. This shows up in Navajo weaving and other art forms.

Two Grey Hills style rug, at the new Indiana University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The concept of beauty in Hózhó extends beyond what can be perceived directly by the senses.  It implies orderly and harmonious relationships with other people, with the natural world, and with the world of spiritual beings and forces.

The estate of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom donated the rug shown above to the IU museum. It seems quite appropriate. Elinor Ostrom is best known for her work on how we can escape the “tragedy of the commons,” a phrase popularized by Garrett Hardin. For this work she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Ostrom’s work examined how societies have found ways to manage natural resources and avoid ecosystem collapse. Like the rugs she donated, it’s a realization of the Hózhó idea of living in harmony with others and with the natural world.

Too few people notice Ernie’s Hózhó sculpture. It treads softly. It’s in harmony with the semi-natural area where it stands.

In Wellfleet, the post office and the theater serve as a commons without people needing the sculpture to remind them. They visit with friends and enjoy community events.

But in a larger sense, I fear that humanity is playing out the dystopic scenarios of Garrett Hardin. Can we ever find ways to work together as Ostrom showed is possible?