In my first college biology class I had a great teacher and experienced a turning point in my life. I was in my second year at community college preparing to transfer to UCSB the next year, and I had a heavy class load. My plan was to get my Ph.D. and become a wildlife biologist. I loved animals, and although I would have preferred to be an animal trainer, I listened to the adults around me and looked for a way to take that love and turn it into a more prestigious and possibly lucrative profession. I loved science, too, so I thought it would work. Endless curiosity and a great ability to synthesize information – two of my super powers – would help me along my path. That was the plan anyway.
Dr. Fox, my professor, was full of helpful hints for the young adults he taught. He told us things like, “Get to know your body and what is ‘normal’ for you. Your doctor will only know what is generally normal, but you will have to explain the changes you see in your own ‘normal’ to help with your diagnosis.” Another useful gem: “Take care of your feet! Invest in good sock and shoes because you’ll be walking a lot when you transfer to university, and your mom won’t be there to take care of you.” (Of course, my mom was already gone at that point, but that’s another story.) Both of these pearls of wisdom have helped me tremendously in my life, I have to say!
In his effort to prepare us for our future studies, he gave us an assignment which I will never forget. We were to choose a topic from a list he had prepared, and then perform a literature review, which we would present to the class. It was a big part of our grade that semester. For those who don’t know, a literature review in the sciences is when you look through the scientific literature – the published work of other scientists – to assess what research has already taught us and what questions remain to be answered. For our projects this involved going to the university library for the first time and learning to use it well. Needless to say, that was another skill I used often after I transferred. It was a bit intimidating, but it felt like a step beyond our little worlds into the world we intended to join.
From the list of topics, I chose the only one that, to my mind, really looked at animal behavior: “Mechanisms of Kin Recognition in Social Animals.” To choose a topic, each of us had to meet with Dr. Fox, make our choice, and discuss it with him a bit. Only one person per topic, so I hoped I would get my first choice, but I prepared with a second and third best just in case. When my turn came, I told Dr. Fox that I wanted the kin recognition topic and he asked me why I wanted it – I told you he was a great teacher! – and I explained my interest in animal behavior. He asked if I had any questions and how I planned to attack this project. I told him my only question was, since there are so many different social animals, did he want me to choose one to focus on or look at many different animals? His response: “What does it say there?” “Social animals,” I responded. “Well there you go!” And off I went.
I loved this project and I learned so much from it about how scientist approach such questions. Most people tend to look at all other species through the lens of their own humanity. We call is “anthropomorphizing” – assigning human characteristics and motivations to non-human animals and plants (and rocks and planets and weather and stars – we do it with everything). Scientists don’t approve of anthropomorphizing. It is a form of empathy, I think, that interferes with the objectivity with which scientist are supposed to approach the subjects of their research. We are supposed to look at lions as lions and trees as trees. Any similarity between them is explained by evolutionary relationships shaped by living on this planet – no more, no less.
But I went on to study Ecology and Evolution, which is more about the relationships between life forms and the environments they inhabit. The plant makes a seed which the bird eats and later deposits somewhere else to grow. If the seed can’t survive the trip through the bird’s digestive tract, the seed is lost. The plant cannot reproduce. If the seed has a protective coating allowing it to survive that acidic environment, the bird is helping the plant to reproduce and colonize a new place. Some plants have evolved specifically to attract birds to their fruit so that the bird’s droppings will help to disperse the plant’s seeds. These relationships are what I studied, or planned to study. It felt overwhelming at times, thinking about how to develop experiments to answer specific questions when so many moving parts were involved. I could see the big picture so clearly: Everything is connected to everything else. Coincidentally, I began exploring Wicca and other forms of paganism about this time, too. It made sense in my mind and heart – everything is connected to everything else! The more I learned, the more that overarching truth stood out to me. We are all connected.
I did not become a wildlife biologist in the end. Life threw me some curve balls and plans changed. Plans went completely out the window for a while, in fact. I learned a new topic – depression and survival. That’s a story for another time, though. For now, flash forward a decade or two to more recent times. California had been enduring years of drought – again. As I drove through the hills to and from work each day, I noticed the glorious oak trees struggling. Some looked weak, others simply crumbled to pieces under their own weight. Oak trees!! How could this be happening? I called to mind what I knew from my science background: these adult trees are many decades old, some hundreds of years old. They had been living in the same place all that time, of course, so surely they had seen other droughts and they survived. What was different this time? Perhaps there was some disease or pest that attacked when the trees were weak from drought already? Would they survive another dry year? I couldn’t imagine this place without them. It made me sad to think of losing them.
That’s when my heart took over, I think. That’s when I started talking to the trees.
From my journal, September 2016:
I live in the southern part of the central coast of California about an hour and a half north of where I was born and raised. We are in what they say is the 5th year of drought. My calculations make it more like 8 years, but it doesn’t really matter. The point is, it’s DRY. Also, as is customary here, there are some huge fires burning today, one of which is pretty close by. The sky is hazy from the smoke, the sun coming through as if through giant sunglasses. Everyone is glued to the news and Inciweb; everyone is tense. It’s summer in paradise.
Between this hellish vision outside my window and the constantly ever more disturbing news echoed from the networks through the reactionary filter of social media, it’s tempting to think maybe the Catholics got it right with that Book of Revelations. It’s easy to see the potential Antichrist in the form of Donald Trump. The wars of the world continue to rage, the environment is in distress at every turn, new diseases seem to crop up overnight. It does seem possible that an apocalypse is upon us…
But I think this is a matter of perception, too. Earlier this year when El Niño brought us hope for rain, I prayed it would come, and in an effective manner – not a deluge which would lead to another kind of devastation, but a steady, gentle beginning that allows the rain to seep into the dry soils and feed the long-suffering oaks. I have been so worried about them. Many have just crumbled where they stood. Partly the drought and partly some plague affecting trees in California. They were stressed already, then the parasite came. Now those dead and drying trees are fuel for the fires, too.
I wanted to tell the trees that I loved them, so I did. As I drove to and from work when it should have been raining, I talked to the trees. I told them to hold on, surely the rain would come. And then I listened. Whether is was the trees or the angels or my own unconscious mind, something told me this: These trees are native to this land, as is the cycle of drought. Many of them are very old and have survived many droughts. Over the centuries, these trees survived while others did not. Even now, look down! New trees are dying, but the forest will continue. This is the cycle in this place. The cycle of the trees and the forest occurs over a greater period of time than a human life, so it is easy, from a human perspective to see all of the death occurring now and think, “This is the end.” Count the young trees, notice them, and you will see the forest beginning again.
Sounds crazy, right? The trees are talking to you? Riiigghht… Well, my wild soul had this experience. My degree in Ecology and Evolution agrees with the conclusion reached by the trees. There are and always have been cycles of life with periods too big for humans to easily grasp. This place is filled with organisms that not only survive droughts and fires, in some cases they depend on them to reproduce.
So, although I could look outside and see a coming apocalypse, I could also look outside and see Nature clearing away the detritus to make way for new life. That is my choice. In the same way, I choose to look at the madness, fear and hatred coming to the surface in the human world as a giant abscess coming to a head. All of this horrible, stinking rot must come to the surface so that we can see the disease clearly and purge it from our culture. It will be ugly and stinky for a while, but if we keep flushing out the pus of bigotry, misogyny, fear-mongering and hatred, the wounds can be healed. We have an opportunity for change for the better or the worse. WE have the power to decide. The festering wounds cannot be ignored any longer, that much is clear. It may be an apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world.