To dream of the universe is to know that we are small and brief as insects, born in a flash of rain and gone a moment later. We are delicate and our world is fragile.Linda Hogan 1
During a recent trip to New York City with my family we spent a couple of hours in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). While there, we visited the Hall of Biodiversity which focuses on the abundance of life on earth and the factors that threaten it. Within that hall, an exhibit called “The Spectrum of Life” contains a collection of over 1500 preserved organisms and models that are artfully mounted in a dense, floor-to-ceiling display that stretches for 100 feet. The microorganisms, plants, fungi and animals in this display are only a tiny fraction of the total number of species on earth, which is estimated to be anywhere from 8.7 million to 2 billion, though scientists have only identified and cataloged 1.5 million, so far.2 Even so, the display is a representative sample and is arranged to show the evolution, taxonomy and astounding variety of life. If you gaze up into the seemingly infinite night sky and ponder that in the entire universe earth could be the only planet to have life upon it, the abundance of life here seems even more precious.
Life’s extraordinary diversity and specialization is a wonder that becomes amplified if you consider that every place on earth has an interconnected community of living things and each of these ecosystems is seamlessly woven into a whole dynamic tapestry of connection. This biosphere of all life and its coherence with the atmosphere, hydrosphere and geosphere as these living things go through their unique patterns of living, reproducing, dying and decomposing, has been described as one whole self-regulating system that, when balanced, maintains the very conditions that are necessary for life to continue on earth. This idea, called the “Gaia Principle” after the Greek earth goddess, was introduced in the mid-1970s by chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis. Over the past forty years the theory has gained traction as more and more research on the atmosphere, oceans, climate patterns, ecosystems and the effects of ecological imbalance have provided increasingly more support for it.3
John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Contemplate this idea for a moment. Imagine our beautiful blue planet as a living, breathing organism made up of billions of specialized parts like your own body. In your body, if one part begins to fail, the rest of it is challenged. The body can adapt to some losses and learn to function and even thrive, but too much damage, whether all at once or over many years, or the loss of a significant organ can lead to death or a serious compromise in the quality and duration of life.
There is not one organism, including us, that can exist without multiple connections with other species. The myriad of ways we have all co-evolved on a massive scale over the 3.8 billion years that life has been doing its thing here, points to endless creativity and a quality that could be described as a kind of intelligence in the adaptive ability that is possible in molecules of DNA as life mingles, reproduces and interacts with the environment. Though we often seem bent on separating ourselves from the rest of life, humans are deeply connected with all life forms. Mystics and poets have understood this for centuries and scientists have steadily uncovered more and more evidence to illustrate this reality. The more we discover about the origin and growth of the complexity of life on earth, the more clearly we see and understand the depth and breadth of common connection that we all share. The genetic code within our DNA, the molecular “blueprint” that makes us what we are, has more in common with just about any other form of life than it has unique differences. We are all essentially related to some degree at the molecular level.
Consider the 40,000 different species of vertebrates that make up all mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish: each of these at the early stages of embryonic development, leading up to and including the formation of the vertebral column, are virtually indistinguishable from each of the others. You were once identical to a trout or a corn snake or a goat or a sparrow or a toad. The Lakota people of the North American Plains have a sacred phrase that is both a greeting and a benediction, “Aho Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ”, which translates to “we are all related” or “all my relations”. At a fundamental level, we are all one: made from essentially the same stuff, arising in unique ways as integral parts of one immense, dynamic body. This is an elegantly beautiful reality and perhaps if more people knew it and felt that sense of kinship, we would love and care for the whole of existence more attentively.
Life on our planet is in need of some love and care as we are living in a time of great challenge to the integrity of earth’s ecology. On May 6, 2019, after 3 years of metanalysis of research that has been conducted all over the world, the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released its “Report on Biodiversity”, which affirms that we are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction that our planet has experienced in its 4.5 billion years of existence. The new era that humans have ushered into geologic time is called the Anthropocene—The Age of Man. Unlike the other mass extinctions in earth history that were mostly caused by climate and sea level change related to unavoidable cataclysmic natural disasters, this one is due to the unbridled activities of humanity and therefore based on avoidable choices that have continued because of greed and ignorance, despite decades of warnings from the scientific community.
Over the past 150 years, as we have taken what we have wanted from the natural world, extracted resources with abandon, and indelibly changed nearly every ecosystem that exists on our planet, we have brought death and destruction to many organisms. Global climate change is rapidly accelerating because of our incessant burning of fossil fuels and simultaneous deforestation of the planet, expansion of corporate agricultural monocropping and population sprawl. The UN report warns that “around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.”4
The scope of this loss is hard to process. Do an internet search on the phrase “climate grief” and you will find numerous articles describing and addressing how people are feeling a lack of empowerment and hopeless. The thing is, grief is a natural response to loss, and fear and anxiety are common when we perceive impending loss. It can help to gain a more expansive perspective.
Forms of matter are impermanent. No thing lasts forever in its present state and the enlivened matter that we call “life”—whether it arises from seed, spore or egg—seems to be doubly vulnerable as the living spark within it will also depart in addition to the inevitable degradation and reformation of its body. What happens to that life energy, the animas of being, is a mystery and the subject of much contemplation among humans. To be alive and conscious of one’s earthly terminus is both sobering and beautiful. It can lead to reflection on how days and years might unfold within the fullness of the whole, what gives that time meaning, and what might be left behind when your own life spark leaves the matter it has animated.
During medieval times, many Christian monks engaged in a spiritual practice known “Memento Mori” which is Latin for “remember that you will die.” This may seem dark and depressing, but Douglas Christie, the author of The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, suggests that memento mori “is not a morbid preoccupation with death, but a recognition of its inescapable presence, and of the way awareness of its presence can shape experience and sometimes contributes to a greater attention to life.”5 Becoming conscious of mortality can lead to an openness toward joy even as you might feel grief and sorrow over loss. An appreciation for what you have in the present moment, for the beauty of existence, can be cultivated. This awareness can also bring about a sense of humility as one comes to terms with the limitations and fragility of this life and desires to make the most of it.
There is some hope. The UN “Report on Biodiversity” also tells us that it isn’t too late to make changes that could stop and even reverse some of the effects of climate breakdown. Those changes need to be made through cooperation on a global scale and they need to be made right now, not in 30 years. This will involve deep commitments to change commerce, resource usage, energy and behavior. Our present world seems so divisive and myopic that a sudden global unity and shared vision toward a common goal seems like an unrealistic dream. This is a harsh reality to process. But science and experience tells us that even in the face of possible annihilation, life as a whole forges on, tenacious and driven toward continuance, enduring change in whatever ways it can. It is unlikely that the earth will cease to have life upon it, at least until the sun nears the end of its life cycle in another 5 billion years and expands to consume it.
A good place for us to start healing in a time of loss, is to forge connections. If this current situation is a product of separation from the reality of our interdependent existence, then finding ways to connect, to find beauty, and to love one another and yourself is an antidote. We don’t all travel the same path in the same way. Find a path that works for you. Make art. Take a friend for a walk in the woods. Build community. Read. Listen. Think. Observe. Cultivate awareness of how things connect. Follow the loose ends of threads to find what they are hitched to. Have real conversations with others. Show up for elections and support leaders who understand science and history and poetry and love, and who care about all of the life in this world. Become a leader to foster the kind of world you would like to see, even at a very small level. Pay attention to how policies and choices ripple outward and what the intended and the unintended consequences of them are. Seek a spiritual practice that resonates with your soul and helps you to feel a sense of wholeness so that you can continue to act with love in the world. Cultivate gratitude. You don’t have to do all of these things, but find something that brings you to life and enables you to live into your own fullness.
Don’t be afraid of grief. Grief is inevitable, just as death is. Accept that loss is a part of life and find joy anyway. As I left that museum hall full of the abundance and gorgeousness of living things, I fervently hoped that in a few short decades this collection would not take on a whole different focus as an expanded record of extinction as more and more threads of connection unravel from our collective tapestry of life. As I am here, in the middle of my life contemplating all of my earthly relatives at the brink of the Anthropocene, I intend to love this world with all that I have to give. Let’s do that together.
Thank you for reading! Writing is creative work that, like all art, is most often done in solitude. It is joy to find that anything offered here is moving or meaningful to someone else. If anything struck a chord with you as you read this piece of writing, please consider sharing it with a friend. ❤ Michelle
For some simple, inspiring songs that can lift you up and serve to build community check out Mamuse. http://www.mamuse.org/
July 5, 2019 “When it comes to climate change research, most studies bear bad news regarding the looming, very real threat of a warming planet and the resulting devastation that it will bring upon the Earth. But a new study, out Thursday in the journal Science, offers a sliver of hope for the world: A group of researchers based in Switzerland, Italy, and France found that expanding forests, which sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, could seriously make up for humans’ toxic carbon emissions.”
Greta Thunberg is a 16 year old girl from Sweden who has been speaking uncompromisingly to adults and organizing school strikes throughout the world to draw attention to the reality of Climate Change and to hold our feet to the fire for action. If you have not heard her speak yet, try this one (you might need some kleenex):
Notes and Sources:
- Epigraph: Hogan, Linda. (1995) A Spiritual History of the Living World. W.W. Norton & Co, New York. p 126 in the essay, “The Voyagers”. This is a beautiful collection of essays!
- University of Chicago, Aug 30, 2017. A new estimate of biodiversity on Earth. https://phys.org/news/2017-08-biodiversity-earth.html
- The Gaia Hypothesis, PDF Harvard University, various contributors https://courses.seas.harvard.edu/climate/eli/Courses/EPS281r/Sources/Gaia/Gaia-hypothesis-wikipedia.pdf
- “UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ ” https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/
- Christie, Douglas E. (2013) The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. Oxford University Press, New York. p 91
All photos are my own except where noted in the caption.