Monday, December 14, 2020

A Bigger Life: Nature Journaling Week #15

In last week’s essay I focused on my questions about who or what is the reason for this world we inhabit. Some claim it’s all been created for humans with us at some apex of existence. I argued that we’re just a single result of a number of key pieces coming together, none of which would be possible without the sun.

I wrote:

Tiny details add up.

Tiny things allow big things to happen.

I touched upon some different species, including trees, birds, and fungi all being connected back to the sun. Then this week, two things popped up for me that reminded me of or taught me anew on the big concepts I’m struggling with here. 

The first block of information I received this week was a New York Times magazine piece by Ferris Jabr entitled The Social Life of Forests that a friend shared with me. I had read and enjoyed Peter Wohlleben’s NYT bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees and written about it in my main blog in October of 2019 in a piece called Humility From Trees. Reading that essay again is a shocking reminder of what I’ve been wrestling with for so long and how it’s supported by all these other minds. Back then, I didn’t even know Wohlleben’s work was a product of Dr. Suzanne Simard’s pioneering explorations. My loss.

Scientific exploration has revealed that trees and fungi form partnerships known as mycorrhizas. There is actual communication and positive interactions between multiple species within forests. From the NYT article:

“By analyzing the DNA in root tips and tracing the movement of molecules through underground conduits, Simard has discovered that fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species. Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones can pass from tree to tree through these subterranean circuits.”

Further research is showing other species in other habitats are doing these things as well. 

Jabr’s article does caution that we can’t call all interactions between species and individuals as perfectly commensal in nature. Dr. Toby Kiers, a professor of evolutionary biology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, says reality might be closer to “reciprocal exploitation”. A tension is maintained- together- by the collection of lifeforms, described by Jabr well thusly:

“Such reciprocity does not necessitate universal harmony, but it does undermine the dogma of individualism and temper the view of competition as the primary engine of evolution.”

That friction-filled connection between seemingly separate things is further explored in my second block of information from this week, the November 25 On Being Podcast of Augustin Fuentes: This Species Moment. Fuentes brings up the concept of “holobionts”, a term that was coined in the 1990s by Dr. Lynn Margulis, which describes how every one of us is an ecosystem of a number of species that live together for long periods of time and rely on one another to exist. Fuentes repeats the story of how a human body contains so much non-human DNA that if the human portion could be sucked out, there’d still be enough stuff left to see the human shape we know. 

Without that “other”, we cannot function as we do. Our bodies are intimately reliant upon other species to survive. For example, we’ve discovered our gut biome either helps or hinders our overall health and some are calling the gut a “second brain”. Fuentes points out another “other” we need: other people. Fuentes brings up this concept of a “social ecosystem”. I love this quote on what we’ve discovered about how important our connections to other people are for us:

“So that means that over evolutionary time, the bodies, the structures of being human have adapted to and integrated themselves into the system where the social is everything. The psychologist Michael Tomasello says this great phrase: “a fish is born expecting water; a human is born expecting culture.””

This really made me stop to think. We expect culture? We need social interactions? I can grasp the notion because I can quickly list people I depend upon and those I help. Those relationships are extremely important to me and I think of and do things for these people constantly. 


Are we living in a healthy forest...

I look at where we are today as a country here in the US and see that “social ecosystem” in damaged and fractured forms. From a distance, I can see insulated towers of people, supporting folks they consider “acceptable”, but not an overall healthy network or web that can take hits and weather storms. If we could be a huge, dynamic, and diverse forest ecosystem of 328 million organisms, right now we’re shriveled islands sitting in a horrible desert of distrust.

...or a choking tangle

I am comforted with the knowledge that ecosystems can bounce back when given the opportunity. With purpose and effort, what is still alive can flourish anew. Perhaps even in spectacularly new ways.

So, I’m looking at all this stuff and remembering my now years-long obsession with the phrase “we’re stronger together” and going, “Hmm, isn’t this interesting?” Physical connections. Social connections. Life is clearly not a simple case of “survival of the fittest”.

That belief and operating with that as a guiding principle has caused a lot of pain over the years. 

A lot more pain and suffering than believing and living with the idea that there are multitudinous connections and ways we relate to both each other and the entire planet.

That’s why I’ve journaled today on the holobiont and connection.

We really *are* stronger together. Our planet appears to be a working testament to that.

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