In the last three posts we have heard from some of the most articulate spokespersons for shifting human consciousness from a preoccupation with human-centred economic and social development on planet Earth to understanding that human well-being is possible only if we live in harmony with the natural world. When economists excluded the biosphere from their economic models, and industrialized society came to see itself as separate from nature, a new direction for humanity was set in motion. It has brought us into conflict with the life systems on which we depend. It is as if we lost our minds. We have to find them again.
The great work of the 21st century is to re-discover our lost connection to nature; to see ourselves as biological beings and part of an intricate web of life; to understand more fully than any generation before us how we emerged along with all other living creatures out of the fabric of the universe, and to know that we remain woven into that fabric here on Earth in a bond that can never be separated, because it is who we are.
In short, we must nurture in all of the diverse cultures in our world a shift of consciousness anchored in one fundamental and eternal reality: humanity and nature are inseparable. When we damage and destroy any part of any ecosystem in the natural world, we just as certainly damage and hurt ourselves. The shift of consciousness required of us is away from notions that human wealth extracted out of nature is the ultimate human objective, to understanding and appreciating that human well-being enjoyed in a participatory relationship with nature is the highest possible good.
We are being challenged to develop ecological consciousness. All of the authors encountered in the preceding three posts have been writing about this. But what does it really mean to look at the world in this way—through an ecological lens, as it were?
Each of us, wherever we live on Earth, is brought up to see reality through the lens of our culture—to value what our culture values. That will never change. Human beings are social creatures who absorb like sponges the norms and values of the society in which we are born. Our cultures are rich and diverse—a grand mosaic created over millennia in every part of the world. The richness and diversity are to be treasured; but we have to appreciate that our cultures have developed and endured only because the conditions on our planet enabled them to do so. When our cultures become so extensive and active that they work against those life-supporting conditions, we know we have lost our way. And so it is. In the 21st century we have reached the point of conflict with the life-support systems of the planet such that our industrial way of life is facing potential breakdown.
So we are being challenged to create a new and different way of being on the planet. It is a transformation of lifestyles and values as great as anything ever experienced in human history. This time we must get it right, because there is little slack left in the system for trial and error. And this shift will grow out of a change in our minds, as they embrace ecological consciousness—a way of looking at the world so that we design everything we do to be in harmony with the rhythms of nature: from the way we build our homes, how we grow our food, how we travel and communicate, and above all, how we use energy that enables us to do everything we do.
However, it is one thing to understand what needs to be done, but quite another to know how to do it. This was the awareness that developed for Christopher Uhl, a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University. His answer is contained in his 2004 book, Developing Ecological Consciousness: Path to a Sustainable World. I am including a review of Professor Uhl’s teaching, for I believe it captures the essence of the challenges we face and the hope and means for meeting them.
Sustained in the Web of Life
In the Preface to his book Uhl confesses that he had fallen into the trap of feeling so depressed about what he saw in his scientific life as a professor of biology that he was transferring his own despair onto his students. He decided to get out of his office and take a week-long hike in Penn’s woods. He says: “During my walkabout, I remembered what had attracted me to ecology in the first place. It was my love for the natural world, the diversity of life forms on the land and in the sea, the fascinating life cycles of Earth’s creatures, the spaciousness and splendor of the night sky. . .”
He realized that his teaching and his life needed to be grounded in “awe and empowerment, not doom and gloom.” He asked himself what his students—and indeed all of us—need to know “to become more environmentally literate and ecologically conscious . . . What do we need to awaken to? The answer came quickly: first, to the awe and wonder of the living earth; second to the dreadful beating we are inflicting on Earth and one another; and, third to our collective capacity to reverse present trends and to create a life-sustaining and just world.”
We have heard much already in this blog about item two: the adverse impact we are having on the Earth. With respect to item three, I will be reserving comment on what we can do collectively to change things for later in the blog. For the purpose of this post, my intent is to capture the spirit and intent of what Professor Uhl says about item one of his list: “the awe and wonder of the living earth”—how we might experience it for ourselves and teach it to others.
This post, then, is about what it means to be sustained in the web of life.
Awakening the Heart
Christopher Uhl makes some further important points in the Preface to his book. He tells how he was dissatisfied after writing the first draft and was ready to abandon the project because it lacked vitality. After going on a retreat he realized that what was missing were “practices” that would enable a reader “to fully and deeply explore the essence of the ecological teaching” he was presenting as foundational concepts. So the finished book contains practices that are designed to go beyond intellectual understanding and awaken the heart. “As such,” says Uhl, “they are invitations to care –to care for ourselves, to care for each other, to care for the entire community of life. . . In the end, it is not new laws or more efficient solar cells that will play the leading role in solving humankind’s environmental and social problems, it is our awakened and caring hearts.” (Emphasis added)
With those words Uhl has gone to the essence of what is meant by developing ecological consciousness. Scientific and intellectual understanding can take us only so far. We are spirit beings searching for meaning as well as understanding. Science does well in serving our need to understand, but it does not resonate in our hearts. To touch the spirit dimension of our being, we need deep meditative practices and experiential opportunities that lift our spirits to soar. Uhl has done well in incorporating both aspects in his book. Let me share some examples.
Earth, Our Home
He begins with the cosmos, with the truly mind-blowing story revealed by science of how the universe came to be and where our tiny planetary home fits into that vast and awesome totality. He invites us to set out on a moonless summer night with blanket and thermos and a group of friends and head off into the country. We spread our blanket and lie down to gaze at the night sky far away from the glare of city lights. He invites us to let our imaginations drift away from the Earth into “those yawning depths where galaxies whirl like snowflakes in a storm.”
If we narrow our perspective to our own Milky Way galaxy (shown above), we see it in our mind’s eye as a flattened wheel of stars, billions of them, spread out across 100,000 light years of space, with our own solar system—so tiny by comparison, but so vast to our comprehension—spinning and travelling in its own ordered progression through space. Here our own mighty Sun hurls its heat energy across space where a tiny fraction is intercepted by Earth, but that fraction is sufficient to support all life on our planet. He invites us to find a quiet place to watch the Sun as it sets, recalling that it is a million times the size of the Earth. As the sky darkens, if we know where to look we can find our sister planets, and realize that our Earth is in the middle of a family of planets being whipped around by the Sun’s gravitational pull, and we suddenly experience ourselves “inside” the solar system.
He invites us to wake our children just before dawn and bring them yawning into contemplation of the great cosmic experience that unwinds each day as the Earth gathers up the sunlight to enliven all the creatures of the ocean and the land—and for us to know as we stand there rubbing the sleep from our eyes that coursing through our bodies the molecules of our blood are energized by the Sun.
And we are invited to reflect on how the myriad of life forms we know to exist on Earth came to be; how the universal elixir we call water served as a planetary womb that somehow gave birth to the first primeval forms of life that miraculously learned to replicate and eventually became us and every other creature living today and sharing the Earth with us.
Looking outward again, we are invited to reflect once more on our Milky Way galaxy and consider its roughly fifty billion stars like our Sun, each with its own circling planets, and know that there are probably a hundred billion planets in our galaxy alone with the potential to support life—and beyond that in deep space billions more galaxies with their many more billions of stars and planets too numerous to comprehend.
If we allow ourselves to stand in awe and wonder of this immense reality, we are humbled but also exhilarated to know that we are part of a continuing unfolding epic story—what Thomas Berry called “our own sacred story, the epic of evolution.” Modern cosmology provides a wondrous revelation—but to truly know it in our hearts we have to pack our blanket and our thermos and go out on that starry night and gaze into the heavens; and sit at dawn and sunset and reflect on the life-giving Sun. We need to celebrate the solstices and the equinoxes and wander in our minds through the immensity of time—and if we do, if we allow ourselves to truly experience the wonder of it all, then we will know what it means to call the Earth our home.
Earth: A Living Planet
Earth is, indeed, our home, and the home of a vast multitude of plants and animals. It is teaming with life. We know this, but do we really appreciate that the Earth itself is “alive” in its own right. Scientific evidence reveals a rhythmic breathing pattern of the Earth. Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing throughout the rest of the 20th century and up to the present, research begun by Roger Revell and Charles David Keeling has measured the long-term concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The result of this work produced the iconic Keeling Curve shown below, which Christopher Uhl says is “arguably the most important graph produced in the history of environmental science.”
Besides showing that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are increasing dramatically (a concern we will discuss in great detail when we come to examine global warming), the graph literally shows the Earth breathing. The regular up and down motion captured on the graph shows how the carbon-based life absorbs (breathes in) carbon dioxide in the summer and releases (breathes out) carbon dioxide in the winter. Because this occurs mostly on land, and because there is more land in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern Hemisphere, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes down in the Northern summer and up in the Northern winter. This is captured on the graph, which shows this regular breathing in and out of the Earth, one cycle per year.
Equally important is the understanding coming from the work of James Lovelock who posited the Gaia Hypothesis (discussed previously in post #29) that the totality of the Earth’s living organisms, its biota, working together, has regulated the conditions on Earth to keep it tolerable for life, despite the fact that the Sun’s output of light (and therefore heat) has increased by an estimated 33 percent over the past four billion years. All of us along with our family of other life forms are part of one huge living organism travelling through space as we orbit our Sun.
Uhl urges us to reflect on all this by closing our eyes and imagining ourselves breathing in and out with the Earth; taking up into our bodies with each breath the “earth” elements that support us; feeling the water element in all our tissues; noticing the fire element that comes from the warmth of the Sun; breathing in the air element that fills our lungs and courses through all the spaces of our bodies leaving us cleansed and refreshed—repeating this over and over, until we feel ourselves one with all of life and the Earth in one inseparable whole.
We can become conscious, too, of the Earth’s metabolism as its plants take in the sunlight through the wondrous chlorophyll molecule, which, in the end, nourishes all life, because animals take in plant material to nourish their bodies. We feel ourselves as participants in this great life-sustaining process, conscious, too, of the Earth’s innumerable cycles of which we are an integral part. We are invited to awaken to the interconnected, not fragmented, nature of life on Earth so we never again feel ourselves as separate, but one with the dynamic, ongoing symphony of life.
Earth’s Web of Life
And nowhere is the awe and wonder of life displayed more completely than through the way species find their niches, while at the same time maintaining links through both cooperation and competition—held together in a vast self-organizing network we call the web of life.
Uhl tells us that each species is a string in that web, and he invites us to experience the wonder of it all by following a single species, the monarch butterfly, through one individual moth’s life cycle. Then we follow the amazing migratory pattern of the monarch as a vast collective, flying in brilliantly coloured clouds across thousands of miles on the North American continent.
You might be surprised to know that everything in this story depends on a single plant species—the milkweed—for the monarch will lay its eggs only on milkweeds. The butterfly has scent receptors on her antennae that allow her to zero in on milkweeds. She spreads her eggs around, sometimes only one on a single plant so that the caterpillars when they hatch will have sufficient food to enter the pupae stage from which the next generation will come.
If we imagine ourselves riding on the back of a monarch, we will see that she places the eggs on the underside of the leaves so they will not dry out. We will note, too, that the milkweed leaf is filled with a sticky milky latex, which is full of toxins that would cause severe vomiting if we ate a leaf. But not the caterpillars. They love it and have evolved to thrive in their own ecological niche. Moreover, they store the toxins in their tissues so that birds have learned not to eat a monarch caterpillar or butterfly, or they will die a horrible death, because as vertebrates the milkweed latex is poisonous to them. Presumably, that is why the butterfly is brightly coloured, so the birds will not mistake them—another way that nature preserves both butterfly and bird species.
Our butterfly has laid her eggs, tires and dies. We slide from our perch on her back so that we can follow the life cycle of a new butterfly from egg to small caterpillar that goes through five molts over three weeks feeding on milkweed leaves, until suddenly it stops feeding, slides to the ground and attaches itself to the branch of a honeysuckle bush, where a remarkable thing happens. The caterpillar forms a mummy-like crucible within which its body is deconstructed into a kind of soupy mush from which a new magnificent monarch butterfly forms. It takes about a week, then we can fly away again on the back of the new butterfly as she spirals high into the sky in a courtship flight to meet her mate. He arrives, places a packet of sperm complete with nutrient supplements into a special receptacle in her reproductive tract. The next day we fly along with our female as she begins to lay eggs on milkweed plants, releasing sperm to fertilize each egg, just before it is laid. While she is doing this, she is also feeding on the nectar of flowers from other plants, and in doing so carries out an important role as a pollinator.
The life cycle is repeated several times during the summer, and then the weather begins to turn cold. The adult butterflies flee the cold and start to head south for winter, flying thousands of miles from Canada and the northern United States along several migratory routes to one single destination in a mountainous region sixty miles west of Mexico City. How do they do it, flying as far as fifty miles a day? The answer is that they manage very well, feeding along the way on rich flower nectar and, surprisingly, gain weight. They store enough fat to sustain them through three months of the Mexican winter before they head north again at the end of March.
Along the way they mate, find milkweeds on which to lay their eggs, then die. This means that it is the next generation that continues north, where the life cycles spin out over the summer. All of which leads to one mother of a question: “How do the monarchs that hatch in the fall in North America find their way, year after year, to the same winter roosting sites in Mexico, given that these monarchs have never been there before? Similarly, how do the monarchs, born along the way north after winter, find their way to the same summer breeding sites that their ancestors have used for countless generations?” One great mystery among thousands of others we will find throughout the marvellous web of life!
A Web of Relationships
The monarch butterfly account is the story of a single species as a strand in the web of life. But there are also countless stories about relationships. Let me share one told by Christopher Uhl as he turns his students loose in a field of goldenrods and asks them to observe, then report what they see. The story is shown in the figure below.
First the students notice only the butterflies and bumble bees going about their work as pollinators. However, if they look more closely, they will find tiny predators in the form of ambush bugs that can dismember a bee or butterfly, as well as tiny yellow crab spiders that lie in wait camouflaged amongst the blossoms, ready to immobilize an unwary pollinator and suck it dry.
Who would have thought such drama would be in play on a goldenrod stalk? But wait, there’s more. Below the flowers a bunch of aphids are sucking out sugar-rich fluids, gorging themselves to excess, such that surplus sugars drip form their anuses where eager ants lie in wait to drink the sugary fluid, while keeping away ladybugs and other predators who might feed on the aphids. The ants are actually tending the aphids as a shepherd would tend his flock of sheep!
But there’s more still to this merry story of the goldenrod party. Further down the stem a strange marble-sized glob of tissue might be observed—a goldenrod gall, containing a writhing larva inside, which has tunneled down the stem of the flower from where it emerged from an egg laid earlier by a goldenrod gall fly. The larvae are feeding inside the galls with the intent of turning again into flies. But the lives of gall fly larvae are sometimes cut short by a wasp species, which deposits eggs inside the galls. The wasp larvae, developing from these eggs, devour the gall flies as they are born. If the gall fly larvae manage to escape attack by wasps, they might still get gobbled up by chickadees or woodpeckers, which sometimes peck open galls in winter.
Needless to say, this is one fascinating outdoor classroom episode for Professor Uhl’s students. He reports that “even after I tell them we are done for the day, they often linger in twos or threes by patches of goldenrod, looking at this mini-ecosystem with new eyes.”
And well might all of us look at the web of life with new eyes. If we did—in great numbers of us around the world—I wonder if we would be so ready to tear into the earth with our bulldozers, or to tunnel with our great machines into what we believe are rich hordes of metals, destroying existing wildlife habitats and spreading toxic waste across the surrounding landscape.
Would we be as willing to unthinkingly destroy in countless other ways the habitat of our sister species who have evolved so elegantly like the monarch butterfly to fill their niche in the web of life? Would we take more care of our wild salmon stocks by leaving their spawning grounds undisturbed so that the new fingerlings might be born and head out to sea, then in due course return to lay their eggs again, while the bears and eagles might feast their fill on the dying fish who have fulfilled their life’s purpose after travelling for thousands of miles through the oceans?
When we think of all of this, and truly understand it in our hearts, can we not be touched in our minds to be more thoughtful about how we act as stewards of the one natural creation we know, and of which we are an integral part?
If we don’t and we can’t, how can we expect there to be a life in the future for our species? There is only one web of life that evolved over billions of years before our species arrived. Surely with our big intelligent brains, we will not take it down. Can we open our warm and loving hearts and find a place in there for the rest of our fellow Earth creatures? Surely we can do that, can’t we?