Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Price We Pay


WARNING: This is one of those blog posts that is more philosophical than it is political. However, in another sense, it pertains to a worldview that, if more people were open to it, could perhaps help change how we relate to each other and our planet. If that cryptic introduction has hooked you, please read on.

I came across a fascinating article recently in the New York Times about a German forest ranger, Peter Wohlleben, who asserts something quite remarkable: trees have social networks.

The author of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World, has made an impression:
[T]he matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.
Why is this so important? For me, it reflects my belief that there is something in existence, which I like to refer to as "the transcendent," that animates and links all living things. This is hardly an insight original to me, but it is one I am convinced if we really took seriously would force us to treat the world around us, and all of its members, with greater respect and consideration. Unfortunately, however, today so much emphasis is placed upon the fulfillment of the individual that the collective experience is given short shrift.

The German forester
found that, in nature, trees operate less like individuals and more as communal beings. Working together in networks and sharing resources, they increase their resistance.
A perfect metaphor for what is so frequently lacking in today's world, isn't it?

And what is one to make of the latest discoveries that shed some light on the heretofore secret world of animals?
While we pride ourselves on our uniqueness, a number of recent studies reveal that our animal friends are more like us—or at least more attuned to our ways—than might be expected. Here are some of the most fascinating finds.
The list includes birds purposely starting fires to flush out their prey, wolves engaging in complex vocalizations, and birds demonstrating Theory of Mind, i.e., the ability to attribute mental states, including vision, to others. In other words, as an example, if they think they are being watched by other birds they will take measures to hide their food and not visit it too often. Self-awareness, anyone?

For conventional, conservative Christianity, such evidence is contrary to their beliefs that God created humanity and invested that humanity with uniqueness. I certainly do not believe that, but I do believe that we live in a world of potential which, for me, ultimately has a transcendent source.

Even without necessarily sharing my spiritual beliefs, people cannot, if truly examining the world around them, escape the remarkable resilience, mystery and vitality of nature and its mechanisms. While our sense of wonder may today be blunted through the isolation that our digital connectedness ironically makes possible, it doesn't in any way negate the truth to be found in the natural world. Indeed, perhaps we need a new mythology or metaphor to conceptualize that truth.

Our contemporary condition of disconnectedness seems to be the price we pay for choosing the temporal over the mysterious eternal. It is choosing this sentiment while ignoring this one. Our world is thus a poorer place.

* Just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so the routine of everyday life can keep us from seeing the vast radiance and the secret wonders that fill the world.

— Chasidic saying, eighteenth century


  1. I was discussing with my son-in-law yesterday the developed world's obsession with colonizing other worlds. The idea, of course, is that humans should be the dominant species on new planets in order that, when the next extinction event befalls Earth, our species will live on.

    There's such a blinding arrogance to the assumption that on some other habitable planet humans will be suited to dominate life on it. Any orchid grower knows that the more evolved the lifeform the less tolerant it can be to all but a few environments.

    My idea was that we should launch a massive number of capsules into deep space laden with the essential minerals, elements and amino acids which sparked life on Earth. That would create a much better chance of transferring basic terrestrial life to other planets where it could evolve over millions of years into whatever was suitable to that locale.

    1. I agree with your view, Mound. That seems to be the natural course of life, and for us to assume otherwise is simply another version of the hubris that has placed our planet in so much jeopardy.

  2. On another note, it's curious how animist beliefs were fairly widespread until they were extinguished by monotheistic, organized religions that usually asserted human dominion over all other lifeforms. Look how long it has taken mankind to recognize and acknowledge how sentient other creatures may be, complete with complex emotions, memory and the ability to reason and communicate.

    1. I think that the sooner people realize that organized religions are simply human constructs constrained by our fallabilities, Mound, the better off we will be. To attempt to define the ineffable is ultimately folly. All we can honestly do is acknowledge it.

  3. A good reminder that we're so stupid for thinking we're smart about our planet.

  4. If we start with the proposition that all life is interconnected, Lorne, creation makes sense.

    1. It does indeed, Owen. It also underscores the sacrilege of our planetary despoliation.