Interview with Kathelin Gray, producer, director and artist; one of the founders of the Institute of Ecotechnics, Biosphere 2 and the Heraclitus project. To contact Kathleen Gray regarding fundraising for the Heraclitus Project, please email: 

Can you explain how the Heraclitus project came about, and how the calligraphy of ‘The Islanders’ in The Sufis inspired you?

A small group came together in San Francisco in 1967, to form a multidisciplinary initiative. We created the Enterprise for Developing Possibilities, and the Theater of All Possibilities. We wanted ecological and entrepreneurial aspects to our work, and purchased a badly eroded 160 acre ranch outside of Santa Fe, and undertook the challenge of turning it into an oasis. We also toured theatre and researched into cultural and philosophical traditions. Sufism was attractive as it has no dogma and offers important and practical techniques to circumvent blinkered cause-and-effect thinking. Stories and just plain raw experience are two obvious, and clever, modalities.

It was circa 1970 that we founded the Institute of Ecotechnics, a charity in the USA and UK.

It was clear to us that humanity’s actions had precipitated eventual ecological collapse. We wanted to create demonstrations that might contribute tincture effects to rebalancing.

When we read the Mulla story about spooning yogurt into the lake, it fit. ‘What if it takes?’ became one of our mottos.

The first chapter of The Sufis, ‘The Islanders’, describes the acquisition of maritime skills as a means to understanding what it is to be real. The 19th century Ottoman calligraphy that illustrates it resembles a boat. One evening after dinner at our ranch in New Mexico, during a discussion about the book, colleague John Allen declared ‘What if a story about building a boat (also) means to build a boat? Not a metaphor, but an actual boat?’ John was a fan of Shah, to whom he was introduced via J G Bennett. John was interested in systematics in all its intellectual pedigrees.

We had already hoped to build a ship, and had begun to plan. This would be our project for the ocean biome; some of us studied celestial navigation and sailing. We began to look into designs. A ship would truly connect the crew with the starry skies that we live amidst.

I would say that ‘The Islanders’ was a direct poetic catalyst from a tradition we felt quite aligned with: poets and doers.

Indeed, learning to build a ship, a permanent home on this blue planet, does transform. I always liked the notion that we are not born truly human, we are born with the potential to attain humanity. When we say so-and-so is a real human being, that is a high compliment.

And so, in the summer of 1974 we took our theatre bus to Oakland California, and commenced to build an 82 foot (25 metre) ferrocement Chinese junk. In the 15th century, Zheng He launched fleets of junks in seven voyages. For the first time, really, oceans became connectors rather than separators. He sent diplomats, cultural envoys, as well as merchants and engineers. The Chinese junk hull is one of the safest at sea and our first criterion was safety. So the romance of the history of junks, combined with its aesthetic beauty and safety, led us to that design.

Ferrocement is a strong material with flexibility, perfect for a hull. Its materials are cheap; construction is labour intensive. So it is suited to construction with cheap labour (us) that isn’t necessarily highly skilled, as one would need with wooden or steel ships.

Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic philosopher who said Panta Rhei: everything flows, or all is flux. His aphorisms often were conundrums that could not be ‘figured out’ by the logical mind. So in a way he was a precursor to dynamical systems theory, and allied to Shah’s perspective on Sufic thought, and to Asian koans.

What was the original mission for Heraclitus, and what has she achieved?

A flyer printed early on states: ‘The purpose of the Heraclitus is the creation of a Sea People and to itself form the avant-garde of such a people.’ The ship we built is home, not just the means to get from here to there. It is a life. A crew, a cadre, has sailed the ship for nearly 40 years. The crew is typically multicultural, multidisciplinary. The vessel is a floating art work, a travelling knowledge base, locus of interchange and exchange, an expeditionary research apparatus. Small group dynamics and creative solutions are important and students and crew naturally understand the real dynamics between biospheric forces and the values of a culture.

Since Heraclitus was launched in the 1970s, is there still a need for such a ship, and why?

The ship is an apparatus for the creation of understanding. It is a multicultural, multidisciplinary demonstration which sails the seven seas offering friendship and commitment to coastal cultures. Once you step aboard this iconic ship, your life is forever transformed, especially if you experience a full nine-month programme.

A new paradigm is necessary to effect world change. Neoliberal and New Age words are counterproductive and produce unintended consequences. Through the Heraclitus, lives are changed, one by one. Each person goes on to live a fuller life, with more understanding and commitment to ecological balance, than they would have before. They go on to influence others, and so the radius of real change and genuine humanity, widens.

Can you explain what’s involved in the current renovation, and how the ship will differ from its original form?

We are in Roses, Spain, at one of the last small shipyards. Most have been adapted to cater to super yachts. When we started, decades ago, there were many shipyards for fishing boats. Now, there are almost none left, worldwide. Our crew is doing the work; the Expedition Chief and the Captain are leading the reconstruction.

We are beefing up the structural metal, with the expectation that there may be more powerful rogue waves and currents moving forward into the future of sea travel. We are also tweaking the hull’s hydrodynamics, a wee bit sleeker, and using a new cement mix that penetrates the mesh more completely. The interior, we hope, will have slightly fewer bunks to allow for wider berths, and ideally contain artistic carvings and embellishments done by artist and craftsmen friends.

How are you funding the renovation, and what are the challenges in raising the funds?

The rebuild is 70% done, funded by committed individuals, but in order to launch, we need new sponsors who say ‘Yes! Leadership for a complex world! We want to help realise that long-term venture, write a cheque! Let’s get this back into the water where she belongs!’

Our launch target is 2019 – if we get our funds in a timely manner. We feel the next mission is urgent and are building our links to amplify both the plight of the cultures and maritime ecologies, and the triumphs.

Can you tell us about Biosphere 2 — what it was designed to achieve — and what the main challenges were?

Biosphere 2 represented a revolution in ecology. Before B2, ecology research was comprised of naturalists using observational methods in situ and computer simulations. Simulations are based on trajectories of studied vectors; complex life systems are, or were not, understood sufficiently to be studied by statistics.

Biosphere 2 was a test tube, in which you knew exactly what molecules were enclosed in the structure that housed complex life systems. It was built for 100 years of experiments, enabling us to learn more and more about how, over time, life systems evolve.

It was the Kitty Hawk of the science of biospherics.

In a wider context, can you explain what projects The Institute for Ecotechnics is currently working on, and what missions you aim to achieve in the future?

Amongst our many demonstration initiatives, we are working on life systems for manned space exploration; on sustainable tropical forestry; on the vanguard of multicultural artistry, and on training leaders for a complex world, which is the Heraclitus’ main mission. The ship will also study coastal/maritime cultures, which no one is doing. Our planet’s surface is 71% water, yet no one studies the global web of cultures who live on and exchange directly with, the seas and waterways. There are local initiatives, but as we learned over decades, there is a worldwide culture of those who live on and by the seas.