I was recently given a copy of Yes! magazine chock full of fascinating stories. In one article Kendra Ward encourages us to awaken our ecological psyche, to “rekindle the deep memory of where …
I was recently given a copy of Yes! magazine chock full of fascinating stories. In one article Kendra Ward encourages us to awaken our ecological psyche, to “rekindle the deep memory of where we come from” and recognize that we are an integral part of the ecosystem of the Earth, not just observers, protectors, or destroyers. She believes our tendency to be human-centric is at the heart of our ecological catastrophe. If we perceive intelligence from a human-centric position, we will (and do) place ourselves at the top of the heap, rating our type of cognition as superior to all other beings, often unaware of the intricate network of life surrounding us that we are a part of.
What about other types of intelligence, such as the ability of a spider to weave an intricate web, perfectly designed for its location and stable enough to withstand wind, rain, and sun? What about the octopus who “thinks” through sensors on 2,240 suction cups on its tentacles, whose skin can change its color and texture so dramatically that it is unrecognizable, and who in its brief one-year lifespan can learn new behavior? What about the young loons who are able to find their way to winter habitats, even though the parents left earlier? Comparatively, we can get lost taking a wrong turn on a country road.
Ward says that if we undervalue the lives of other beings, it fits conveniently into our desire to consume, for they become expendable resources. As taught in Economics 101, human needs are limited, but human wants are unlimited, and we see the evidence of that all around us. How large a house do we need and how many? Even households of moderate means often own a house and a cabin, while the super-rich have homes with 20,000 square feet and three or more houses in different states or countries. My house is not grand, but certainly larger than many individuals on the planet own. The subprime housing bubble and collapse was a prime example of consumeristic greed exploited and exploded. The layers of deregulation from the Reagan years on were orchestrated to loosen restrictions for the benefit of corporate entities and the wealthy. It fed the voracious appetites of speculators in mortgages and securities while enabling home buyers to get inadequately-secured financing on properties with inflated prices that they knew they couldn’t really afford. When the bubble burst, many lost their homes while the fat cat investors remained unscathed.
You may be asking, “What exactly does this have to do with spiders and loons?” It’s all part of the integrated continuum that we are part of and that we so easily ignore. While climate change is now making it much more difficult to ignore, a substantial number of people astoundingly persist in denying that it exists. Many of these deniers may be the same ones who declare the sovereignty of humans over all else, giving them inalienable rights to multiply and use up the Earth’s finite resources, quoting the Bible as evidence. I picture them throwing a tantrum, yelling at Mother Nature, “You’re not the boss of me!”
Those with an ecological psyche are light years away from that kind of thinking or being. Author Ward encourages us to confront our attitudes about our human ownership of everything and how that keeps us separate from the natural, living world. We are given a taste of our connectedness through a special relationship with a beloved pet, a treasured tree, or favorite lake, river, or ocean beach, which allow us to breathe easier. Or perhaps when we meditate and feel the edges of our human boundaries soften. Out under the night sky, we feel viscerally how inconsequential we are, yet part of it all. As I type, my very large, long-haired cat, Paco, came hovering by my feet, and I invited him up on my lap to get some attention, trying to keep his paws off the keys. Is that a one-way impulse, or is it reciprocal? Does he also recognize that I could use some nurture from his soft body and loud purr after giving that inert machine that never cuddles or purrs too much attention?
Ecological biology views organisms, such as ourselves, not as separate entities, but as integral parts of their environment with biological and sociological interdependencies.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, distinguished professor in environmental biology at the State University of New York, and author of Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass, encourages us to learn from the mosses that have persisted for 350 million years. She said the mosses teach the lessons of “being small, of giving more than you take, of working with natural law, and sticking together.” She believes that gratitude can help heal “our sick, capitalistic world” and advocates for “restorative reciprocity” with the natural world, appreciating the gifts and responsibilities we’ve been given.
Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, and author of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, along with other researchers, sees a forest as a superorganism of unique individuals, not a group of loners standing side by side, competing for sunlight, water, and nutrients. Research reveals that trees of the same species are communal and will often form alliances with trees of other species. Forest trees have evolved to live in “cooperative, interdependent relationships, maintained by communication and a collective intelligence similar to an insect colony.”
He explains that in every forest that is not too damaged, trees are connected to each other through underground fungal mycorrhizal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease or attacks by insects or humans, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.
Trees also communicate through the air, using pheromones and other scent signals. Wohlleben gives the example of the wide-crowned umbrella thorn acacia on African savannas. When a giraffe starts chewing acacia leaves, the tree notices the injury and emits a distress signal in the form of ethylene gas. Upon detecting this gas, neighboring acacias start pumping tannins into their leaves, which in large enough quantities can sicken or even kill large herbivores.
However, giraffes have evolved with acacias, so they’re aware of this, so they browse into the wind, so the warning gas doesn’t reach the trees ahead of them. If there’s no wind, a giraffe will typically walk 100 yards— farther than ethylene gas can travel in still air—before feeding on the next acacia. They seem to know the trees are communicating.
He tells another story of a massive stump left 400-500 years ago when a tree was felled. The stump still lived, given nutrients by the surrounding trees through their roots. Yet we humans often live side-by-side with people we’ve never met and rarely know well. Albert Einstein said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change,” so if we are such intelligent creatures, maybe we can learn from all that is evolving around us.
Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.