“One thing I’ve learned in the woods is that there is no such thing as random. Everything is steeped in meaning, colored by relationships, one thing with another.” ~Robin Wall Kimmerer
I have a thing for dead trees resting in the branches of living trees. I’m sure forestry management types consider this a potentially dangerous situation, but I find them beautiful. I cherish the music these tree partners make in the wind, almost like whale songs rising from the woods.
When I shared some pictures on social media, poet friend RC Wilson responded, ”Mark Twain indicated that a tree limb in the river that oscillated up and down in the current, like the arm of a man sawing wood, was called a sawyer. Seems like some of the music you describe is a rubbing sound caused by the wind moving the living tree so that the dead tree rubs against it like the bow of fiddle. So how about fiddlers? Yeah, ‘widow maker’ acknowledges the deadliness of that arrested potential energy, so watch out for widow makers when you set up your tent, but also listen for song of the fiddlers that trees have sung forever.”
Dying is a process, and it takes a long, long time. It can take decades for a tree to die. In the process of dying, there’s a lot of things that go on. And one of the things I studied was where does their energy — where does the carbon that is stored in their tissues — where does it go? … About 40% of the carbon was transmitted through networks into their neighboring trees. The rest of the carbon would have just dispersed through natural decomposition processes … but some of it is directed right into the neighbors. And in this way, these old trees are actually having a very direct effect on the regenerative capacity of the new forest going forward.
This is a completely different way of understanding how old trees contribute to the next generations — that they have agency in the next generations.
There are as many stories as there are beings in this forest. Worms, ants, spiders, trees, epiphyllous liverworts, laterite nodules interpenetrated with alga, maggots, eggs, seeds, filaments of fungi; waters bearing beings, beings bearing water; lung cells, and skin cells talking to the air, and air talking to the leaves; multiplicitous symbionts forming composite entities, the whole forest is alive. There is nothing that is not part of life, where do the elements end and organisms begin?
…Around me are crowds of beings but there is no waste. Everybody is food for somebody else. The innumerable myriad beings transform their world, the forest. They create it and eat it, make love in it and die in it. Their bodies are worlds for other beings. Individual presences are palpable, even though there are so many. They are all apparently independent, and carrying on with their individual lives. They are also interdependent. This creates a whole. And a constancy.
I see these gentle partner trees from the highway, on hikes, and in the quiet backlots of what our species calls “undeveloped” lots. They fill me with a quiet peace each time.
“Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.” ~ Robin Wall Kimmerer
I clicked on an article titled, “Study finds our galaxy may be full of dead alien civilisations,” thinking, Wow, a career in space archeology would be fascinating.
Researchers used an extended version of the Drake Equation, which determines the odds of extraterrestrial intelligence existing in our galaxy, to consider factors necessary for a habitable environment. They speculated that intelligent life may have emerged in our galaxy about 8 billion years after it was formed. (Here on Earth, humans emerged 13.5 billion years after the Milky Way was formed.)
And then I got to the passage about “the tendency for intelligent life to self-annihilate…”
What? We know about the fall of empires but did we know science says our species’ selfishly destructive ways are likely take us all out? According to the article,
“While no evidence explicitly suggests that intelligent life will eventually annihilate themselves, we cannot a priori preclude the possibility of self-annihilation,” the study reads.
“As early as 1961, Hoerner suggests that the progress of science and technology will inevitably lead to complete destruction and biological degeneration, similar to the proposal by Sagan and Shklovskii (1966).
“This is further supported by many previous studies arguing that self-annihilation of humans is highly possible via various scenarios, including but not limited to war, climate change and the development of biotechnology.”
This is staggering to consider, especially while we are living through (well, hopefully living through) a tangled knot of crises including a pandemic, climate change, widening inequality, and political unrest. I’m pretty sure we don’t want to leave a dead planet relevant only to space archeologists, even if we currently seem to be heading that way.
I take refuge in hope. Here are a few of the many reasons why.
Crisis has saved us in the past. After all, the Renaissance followed the Black Plague. And there’s much earlier evidence that crisis leads humanity forward. It appears a near-cataclysmic moment in the Upper Paleolithic period led to the preeminence of modern humans. Environmental degradation reduced our kind to near-annihilation. We emerged from this crisis only because we developed new collaborative practices such as trading with strangers and loyalty initiation rituals, engendered to create grudging trust. It took a near-extinction level events for humanity to socially evolve in the Paleolithic. Imagine how our response to this pandemic might move us forward.
A recent survey by World Economic Forum indicates an overwhelming desire for change. Out of the more than 21,000 adults from 27 countries who were questioned, 86% would prefer to see the world change significantly – becoming more sustainable and equitable – rather than revert to the status quo. Even on an individual level, 72% say they prefer their life to change significantly rather than go back to how it was before the COVID-19 crisis started. Numbers are somewhat lower for the U.S., but a majority support initiatives to combat climate change.
How to bring about real change? That’s a huge topic, but here are a few hopeful glimpses.
Increasing momentum for positive social change is happening around the world, especially among young people. Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT, points out these movements differ from earlier student moments because they emphasize a change in consciousness, collaboration with people of all ages, and using technology in new ways to shift awareness toward solutions. Dr. Scharmer explains that this activates an axial shift in learning and human development, moving away from closed to open presence.
Cooperative behavior is not only natural, it’s contagious. When people benefit from the kindness of others they go on to spread the compassion. The tendency to “pay it forward’ influences dozens more in an enlarging network of kindness. And even more heartening, the effect persists. Kindness begats more kindness, blotting out previously selfish behavior. It doesn’t seem to matter how people are exposed to kindness. They might read about altruistic behavior, see it in a video, or witness it in person. It also doesn’t seem to matter if the person offering kindness was similar to them, or if the help was material (like money) or non-material (like comfort). We are influenced not only by the people around us but also what we’re exposed to online and in the media. Time to pay closer attention to our influences, amplifying the kindness that’s so intrinsic to our human nature.
Social justice makes us happier. Interviews with nearly 170,000 individuals across 28 countries show people whose countries emphasize social justice are happier, more pleased with their lives, and show greater trust in one another. Greater social justice demonstrates that people have value, which is crucial to psychological well-being. It also builds confidence in communities which, in turn, improves our relationships with others. It may help reduce prejudice as well. Social justice is shown to benefit the economy, including its gross national product. Countries with higher social justice showed higher GDP. To build a stronger economy plus a happier, healthier population, countries need to prioritize social justice policies. (Studies in the United States also show people experience greater happiness in states that spend more to promote the public good such as parks, libraries, public safety, and infrastructure.)
Covid-19 as well as climate change brings into sharp focus what we need to do to restore the environment. Emergency physician James Maskalyk and Dave Courchene, founder of the Turtle Lodge International Centre for Indigenous Education and Wellness and chair of its National Knowledge Keepers’ Council, explain.
“The answer is already here, and has been known for thousands of years. It is in the wisdom and sacred teachings of Indigenous people across the world. They have the deepest connection to the spirit of the Earth and its history, and from this intimacy, healing can occur.
This is neither speculation nor fantasy. A 2019 study from the University of British Columbia, looking at biodiversity in Canada, Australia and Brazil, found more species of birds, animals and amphibians on land managed by Indigenous people, even greater than in national parks. In the same year, a collaboration involving 50 countries and more than 500 scientists, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), concluded that human activity and the resultant lack of biodiversity allowed for five new diseases to emerge every year with the potential to infect humans. They noticed that Indigenous land, though it faced the same pressures, was eroding less quickly. Capturing their knowledge, and expanding their stewardship, was cited as necessary for a healthier world.
No one created the problems that threaten to overwhelm us from malice. Not the plagues, nor climate change, nor extinctions. They have occurred as side effects of a system whose rapid growth is both encouraged at all costs, and blind to natural limits.”
New and resurgent solutions are democratizing how we produce, consume, govern, and solve social problems. The maker movement, collaborative consumption, the solidarity economy, open source software, transition towns, open government, and social enterprise are just a sample of the movements showing a way forward based on sharing.
The sharing transformation shows that it’s possible to govern ourselves, build a green economy that serves everyone, and create meaningful lives together. It also suggests that we can solve the world’s biggest challenges — like poverty and global warming — by unleashing the power of collaboration. At the core of the sharing transformation is timeless wisdom updated for today — that it’s only through sharing, cooperation, and contribution to the common good that it’s possible to create lives and a world worth having.
And herein lay the engine of the sharing transformation: When individuals embrace sharing as a worldview and practice, they experience a new, enlivening way to be in the world. Sharing heals the painful disconnect we feel within ourselves, with each other, and the places we love. Sharing opens a channel to our creative potential. Sharing is fun, practical, and perhaps most of all, it’s empowering.
You may be activating change right now by the content of your conversations, the ideas you see taking hold around you, the way you stay informed, the way you raise your children and treat other children, how you interact with others, how you choose to spend your money as well as not spend your money, the way you earn money, the causes you advocate and believe in, and how you interact with our living planet. You, like so many change-makers, may already be living through deeply felt, personally lived ethics. That itself causes rippling change. Torchbearers of the last century who brought about so much good could do so because awareness shifted and deepened. A side benefit is depriving alien archeologists of the chance to explore a ruined planet!
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. ~Arundhati Roy
Nature operates complex systems with awe-inspiring success. We see such systems in Monarch butterfly migration, spotted hyena hunting behavior, the day-to-day life of a honeybee colony, everywhere in nature.
The science of complexity tells us these systems cannot be fully understood when examined in isolation because they function as part of a larger whole. Perhaps surprising to us, complex systems flourish right near the edge of chaos. That’s how nature works.
Any self-organizing system, including a human being, is exquisitely cued to maintain equilibrium. Yet that equilibrium can’t hold for long. That’s a good thing. Consider the pulse fluttering in your wrist. The heart rates of healthy young people are highly variable while, in contrast, the beat of a diseased or very elderly heart is much more regular. An overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.
We are attuned to minute fluctuations in our bodies as well as in the world around us and are capable of almost infinite responses to regain balance. Some of these responses occur at a level we can’t consciously detect. Change or disturbance at any level functions as a stimulus to create new options.
Each time we are destabilized, these elegant and complex processes at our disposal give us ways to regain balance. The more potential responses we have, the greater our adaptability.
To me, this has everything to do with education. It tells me that we’re perfectly suited to expand our learning infinitely outward as long as we are not confined by sameness, limited variables, and inflexibility.
As an example, lets compare a curriculum used in a second grade classroom to a flock of Canada geese migrating north. It seems obvious that the geese are all the same species heading in the same direction, surely far less complex than an up-to-date curriculum supported by all sorts of educational resources and a well-trained teacher. But lets look more closely. Geese are self-organized into a highly adaptive system while the curriculum is not. The geese choose to migrate based on a number of factors. Unlike curricula, geese don’t operate by standardized data nor is there any flock leader telling them when it’s time to leave.
Geese fly in V-shaped formations. Flying together is far less physically stressful than flying alone. Each bird flies slightly ahead of the next bird so there’s substantially less wind resistance. Because they’re flying in formation, their wings need to flap less frequently and their heart rates stay lower, helping them conserve energy for the long flight. Flying in formation helps the birds communicate and follow the route more efficiently. They also take turns leading at the head of the V, the most difficult position. Each lead goose is smoothly replaced by another member of the flock after a short turn. That way no single goose is more essential than any other for the flock’s migration. The entire flock is able to respond and adapt to a whole range of conditions.
Nearly every variable is limited by the curriculum and overall school structure. The most enthusiastic and dedicated teacher is afforded no real time to let students explore subjects in greater depth or to try innovative educational approaches. The fewer potential variables, the more it adaptability is diminished. Remember, an overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.
When I was growing up we were taught humans were at the top of every chart, far superior to all other living beings. Our textbooks, illustrated with stereotypical images of “cave men,” proved the assertion with a long list of what our species could do that others could not. The list was so smug that I was a bit embarrassed on behalf of my fellow homo sapiens. A skeptic even then, I thought the list was somewhat prejudicial. Worse, it didn’t acknowledge what feels obvious to young children, that we are all things and all things are us.
I don’t for a moment dismiss our many human accomplishments—among them language, science, the arts, and shared rules meant to advance mutual compassion. I simply mean to point out that we’re not better, we’re different.
Besides, what I was taught as a kid doesn’t really hold up. Here are some reasons why.
Tool use was a biggie on that list. It’s true, animals haven’t developed the smart phone (thus are spared walking into traffic while texting) but they naturally incorporate tool use when it makes sense for them.
Crows make tools like hooks and rakes out of twigs, leaves, even their own feathers to obtain items just out of reach and can use three tools in sequence. They also will drop pebbles into a container in order to raise the level of water, understanding cause and effect as well as a seven to 10-year-old child. Other examples of tool use by crows? They’re known to drop nuts on a roadway so cars will crack the shells, then wait for a break in traffic to retrieve the nutmeat. Interestingly, they’re more proficient when they grow up watching adult crows fashion tools. (Crows might wonder why we segregate human kids away from the interesting work-a-day world of adults.)
Naked mole rats dig with their teeth, but to keep from inhaling dust and dirt they’re known to position wood shavings in their mouths as rudimentary face masks.
The octopus is more closely related to clams than to people, yet these invertebrates plan ahead, tool-wise. For example they’ve been seen carrying coconut shell halves they can hide under later in order to grab unsuspecting prey as it passes.
Math was another obvious difference. We were taught that numerical sense is evidence of higher order thinking. Yet the animal kingdom uses math when necessary.
Bears can count. Although they don’t benefit from the intelligence-boosting effect of living in social groups, research shows bears can estimate quantities just as well as primates. One particular study taught bears to discriminate between dots on a touchscreen computer, a situation about as far removed from relevant bear smarts as possible. Their abilities in natural habitat are likely to be far more impressive.
Elephants have substantial numerical skills, outperforming primates and even human children when tested for their ability to find the difference between two quantities. A study found elephants can discriminate between one and two as well as between larger numbers.
Baby chicks can not only count, they can even can add up numbers based on groups of objects they can’t see at the moment. And that’s when they’re a few days old! By two weeks of age, chickens can take into account the sun’s height and position to navigate. Plus they’re able to draw inferences and plan ahead, for example choosing to delay gratification in order to reap a greater reward. And who’d have guessed, but chickens prefer to count from left to right.
Pigeons are able to learn abstract rules about numbers and order pairs. Aside from humans, only rhesus monkeys have been able to perform at this level.
Koko, a western lowland gorilla, has been taught American Sign Language and, according to her trainer, understands about 1,000 signs along with nearly 2,000 words of spoken English. Sometimes, when there’s not a relevant sign, Koko invents her own signs. For example, she “compounded the sign for scratch with the sign for comb to mean, “brush” (scratch-comb).”
Crows will eat nearly anything, but prefer French fries from a McDonalds bag to the same fries in a plain brown sack. They not only hold grudges against specific humans who have done them wrong, but will teach other crows to react badly upon seeing them as well.
Let me push it one step farther, to compassion and even spirituality. We’ve been told that only humans have evolved beyond survival-based selfishness to establish ethics and morality. We’ve been taught we’re the only species to perform rituals as we mourn the passing of our departed, the only ones to meditate in silence, the only ones to experience a sense of awe akin to reverence. Apparently not true either.
How about awe? Chimps are known to ritualistically dance at the advent of thunderstorms and dance at waterfalls. They’ve also been observed dancing (rather than fleeing instinctively) in the face of wild grass fires.
Meditation? Baboons have been observed performing a sangha, sitting in silence for over a half hour gazing at a stream of water, even the juveniles remaining quiet.
Maybe even religion. Cetologist Hal Whitehead‘s research indicates that sperm whales not only transmit culture to their young, they may have have evolved a form of religion to make sense of their purpose.
Even these terribly incomplete examples have probably taxed your patience although there are thousands of other fascinating proofs out there. Let’s remember, all these observations are human-centric, further evidence that we judge animals against one species—-us.
We wouldn’t have particularly good scores if tested according to the abilities of our fellow creatures. It’s not as if we can age in reverse as a jellyfish named Turritopsis dohrnii does, possess a snake’s infrared vision able to assess the difference in temperature between moving prey and surrounding area on the scale of milliKelvins, emit a protein that neutralizes nearly every poison as an opossum does, regrow limbs and organs as the salamander can, or are able to hear as well as the wax moth Galleria mellonella which is capable of detecting frequencies of up to 300kHz, (we humans at best hear to about 20kHz).
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
“Paradijs met dieren” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1620
A hundred million babies are being soothed in loving arms, lulled to sleep by songs in every language. Those gently nurtured babies will grow up to change our lives in ways too marvelous to imagine.
Today Muslims pray, “Praise be to the Lord of the Universe who has created us and made us into tribes and nations. That we may know each other, not that we may despise each other.” Cloistered nuns petition God that our world be blessed with the wine of Christ’s love and peace. Tibetan Buddhists practice tonglen, breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out happiness for all beings. Individuals meditate, chant, pray, or contemplate nature while sending light to each soul on earth. People of all faiths dance and sing in Dances of Universal Peace.
Right now, artists are creating something that never before existed. Their medium may be cake batter, dance steps, paint, tiny gems, huge beams, words, reclaimed trash, wool, glass, musical notes, or curved light. They bring vision into reality. The way they see transforms the way we see.
Right now people in crisis are rising up, acting out of deep regard for one another in an ongoing testament to the compassion that defines us. Every second millions of people are selflessly working around the world to advance ecological sustainability, economic justice, human rights, political accountability, and peace. Unnoticed ordinary acts of kindness allow life to flourish as we nurture the youngest and tend to the oldest, share with those in need, and weave the web of mutuality that holds us together.
Right now people assumed to be dead are reviving, changed forever after by a near-death experience. They reawaken to a life less focused on material success or narrow beliefs, and instead emphasize love, curiosity, and awe.
Right now you are fueled by a perfect circle: sunlight, soil, and the seed’s mysterious will. At this moment your extraordinary body is replacing millions of cells, pumping quarts of blood, actively defending your immunity, releasing precisely timed hormones and enzymes, operating on rhythms well beyond your perceptions.
Today in an unimaginably vast universe, clouds of interstellar dust reflect the light of nearby stars. We are made of elements forged inside of stars that died out long before our own solar system emerged.
We are one being, linked in profound and essential ways even though we rarely pause to consider them.
The surface of Earth is seventy percent water just as we are made up of seventy percent water. This is the same water that has been on Earth for four and a half billion years. It flows in and out of each one of us. In cycles too infinite to imagine this water has been drawn up in plant cells, swirled in oceans, circulated in bloodstreams, sweated, excreted, wept out tearfully, drunk up thirstily, formed into new life, risen into vapor, and locked into ice. The saliva in your mouth is made of water molecules intimately shared with beings that lived long ago and will be shared with all who come after us.
We breathe about 600 million breaths in a lifetime. The air we rely on is a balance of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, and a dozen or so other gases perfect suited to our existence. It circulates through endless forms and uses, moved by the wind of our planet and by each exhale of living beings—-trees, crows, humpback whales, and newborn babies. It recycles just as the calcium in your jawbone may well have been quicklime poured on a criminal’s grave, a garnet on a nobleman’s finger, cheese carried by a nomadic herder, and a coral reef in a tropical ocean.
Nothing about our bodies is separate from what’s around us. We are nourished by what has grown from the sun’s energy and we remake ourselves constantly, replacing millions of cells every second using only the materials that have been on this planet for millennia.
Quantum physics tells us the principle of entanglement explains how particles, once linked, can remain connected even when physically separated by vast distances, possibly even by time. Entanglement occurs between living beings as well, both human and animal, indicating a greater connection same call a morphic field and others call a holographic universe.
On this planet we are linked to every particle and every life form so intimately that science is beginning to echo what poets and sages have been saying for thousands of years. We. Are. One.
Each person is truly your kin. Our human connection begins with common ancestors. Genealogist Gary Boyd Roberts estimates that everyone on the planet is at least a 40th cousin. That’s because the family tree expands as each generation traces back. You have eight great-grandparents. Their parents had 16 parents. Go back 40 generations and you’d find a trillion grandparents at a time when there were fewer than 15 million people on the planet. That means we share 40th great-grandparents. In that way you are connected to eighty percent of the people on this planet. That includes the guy driving the delivery truck right outside your window and the woman thousands of miles away struggling to find water in a drought.
The smallest children seem to recognize that existence is an “alive poem.” They find kinship with rocks, animals, as well as people. Our human family, built on kindness and cooperation, helps one another heroically. We are waking to the ways our Earth sustains us, working harder than ever to restore justice and ecological balance. We are reaching out to share, laugh, explain, and find kinship with one another.
We are entangled in a universe so holographic that we can’t help but sense the oneness that has been there all along.