Delicate Balance? | September 26, 2021 by Dr. Kathryn Benton
The forest ecosystem is held in a delicate balance. Every being has its niche and its function, which contribute to the well-being of all. Nature is often described like that, or something along those lines, however, that is, unfortunately, false.
I love the opening meditation. It renews my sense of peace and wholeness amid so much discord…so much struggle. So imagine my dismay when I read the quote above from one of my most important teachers, forest ecologist, Peter Wohlleben. Still, even this sobering reality that Wohlleben speaks of cannot take away the beauty of the forest…of the water, the birds, the trees and the ecosystem as a whole. The reality is, though, that he is right…this beautiful, uncomplicated view is the result of some pretty brutal processes. He continues:
For out there under the trees, the law of the jungle rules. Every species wants to survive, and each takes from others what it needs. All are basically ruthless, and the only reason everything doesn’t collapse is because there are safeguards against those who demand more than their due.
Well, of course we know this about nature, and this has been one of the major reasons we have ideologically separated ourselves from the realities of the natural world. We are different…we have compassion for others…we can bust out of this system in order to “have it all”…the beauty and well-being of the idealized version of nature, as well as, an abundance of what we need without much sacrifice. We can do this because of our “superior intelligence” which will save us in the end!
But Charles Bello, an architect who built his own home on 400 acres of forest land states, “We are not smarter than nature. We often think we are, but we are not.” We have limitations…limitations that are built in…in our own genes. Wohlleben continues:
And one final limitation is an organism’s own genetics: an organism that is too greedy and takes too much without giving anything in return destroys what it needs for life and dies out.
It is these limitations…limitations that are actually part of the genetics of organisms in the forest that we seem to ignore. Though we have our own version of these limitations as part of our DNA, we feel we have a different set of rules. And yet, in the words of Charles Bello, “limitations inspire creation”. His home is living proof of this. Bello built his home without ordering the components on Amazon. He fashioned most of the components from what he had on hand, which was mostly wood from the forest. Hard to imagine, but it is indeed true that “necessity is the mother of invention.”
And this is exactly what gave birth to the adaptations in our own species around 6 million years ago. Because of the limitations of the environment…specifically the disappearance of many of the forests and the abundant foods contained there, we walked out onto the savannah only to find ourselves ill-equipped for that environment. But through our ability to be flexible and our ability to evolve new skills, adapt we did…all the time remembering our earlier life and its original beauty. But somewhere along the way we have lost this sense of reverence for our origins and our ancestors…the trees, the plants, the insects, the mushrooms and the apes.
In the forest, it is the trees that we can most relate to. They stand tall above other life forms and seem to orchestrate what goes on in the forest. But what we are finding is that this is not true…there is instead a whole world in the crowns and in the trunks and of course in the soil that is all needed to stabilize and to form the forest community. In the same way we humans need to recognize these networks of mutuality, spoken of by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Others such as, Peter Wohlleben and Suzanne Simard speak of this network in scientific terms. In her book, Finding the Mother Tree, Simard brings us closer to an understanding of a sense of belonging to the Earth…of the similarities and parallels of the life of the tree and the life of a human being. She clearly sees the forest and by extension the Mother tree as part of our hope for the future…the hope that Rachel Carson also spoke of…the hope that even Job clung to, was the hope of a tree…amid his despair.
For there is hope for a tree: If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its tender shoots will not fail. If its roots grow old in the ground and its stump dies in the soil, at the scent of water it will bud and put forth twigs like a sapling.…
And it is significant that this hope is found in the forest and more specifically in the Mother…the largest tree that they have found nurtures her babies much the same way that human beings nurture their young. It is this mothering spirit that has convinced us of this hope…an unconditional love that inspires.
In watching these dancers, it is easy to see the similarity with our cousins the trees. There is hope, yes, but only if we heed the wisdom of our parent species…the trees, the plants, the mushrooms, the apes. Although we evolved from apes, our brains have grown so much that we have been able to develop flexibility, symbolic consciousness, and the ability to step outside the environment to truly see it. But we have “missed the mark”…we have missed the message trying to emerge in the lives of so many of our teachers…messages that could protect us from the dangers of overexploitation. Brian Swimme and Mary Tucker ask us in the book, Journey of the Universe:
Have we come to live in a way so disconnected from Earth’s
systems of life that this mass destruction is invisible to us?
In this book, the authors outline the journey of our own species in the context of the universe as a whole, putting into perspective our experience as part of the whole. It is indeed outrageous to realize that this is the case with human beings. Has our evolutionary consciousness not caught up to the consequences of our actions? Have we not heeded the messages from the natural world and from our own DNA that have warned us?
Well, let’s get back to the forest as wisdom holder. It is the forest that many believe hold the keys to our future. If we are able to preserve healthy forests, maybe we can save ourselves. The forest is indeed a microcosm of the macrocosm of life. There are clearly so many valuable lessons to learn from this community. Maybe the time has come to heed the message…to truly see our place within the history of life. This can be overwhelming. I think many people are sensing this feeling of heaviness…this pressure to do something. Brian Swimme and Mary Tucker put it this way:
Because we know that life is an adventure involving both chaos and order we sometimes want desperately to control things. And whenever our fear grows too strong we become vulnerable to simplistic promises concerning the future. But no one knows what the future holds – all of that is hidden in the darkest night. The future is being created by all of us, and it is a messy and confusing process. What is needed is courage to live in the midst of the ambiguities of this moment without drawing back into fear and a compulsion to control.
Can we do this? Can we let go of the overwhelming fear most of us are feeling? Whether we recognize it or not, we are all experiencing this fear…the experience of the “dark night.” It is our response to this fear…this anxiety that counts. And that is why we need our connection to the all-pervading presence of our creator…the holder of mystery…the source and goal of our longing…the mothering spirit.
As I connect with people in various walks of life, I realize this common thread…the fear of not being in control of our life…our death…the death of others…our own health. We live at the mercy of this mothering spirit…this nurturing presence. Yet, the fact that there is such a spirit…a presence is what brings us back to the hope…the hope of the tree, the hope of the world, the hope of our species, the hope of our own lives. We just need to connect. And it is this connection that I would like to leave you with today. The following is a Taizé song entitled, "Atme in uns, heiliger Geist" (translated roughly as Breathe in us, Holy Spirit). It is this breath, coupled with the awareness of the sacredness of each moment of living that is the cure for our fear. It is the breath that heals our tension and brings us back to our center…the place, which Howard Thurman call the “Altar of the Soul.” May we all come to this place of reconciliation and peace and, along with the Mother Tree, may we treasure our connections to all life to the benefit of the whole. May we accept our limitations while realizing that it is indeed these limitations that inspire us to create solutions to our current plight. We have the raw materials…the DNA from all of our ancestors, the experience of overcoming adversity against all odds. As we take some deep breaths…into the lower part of our lungs, may we strengthen that awareness of our own resources…above and below. Amen