By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
“Some days I wake up walking over the desert and see pieces of me everywhere.”
It was a warm June evening, with a full moon coursing across a crystalline sky. I had hiked into a remote campsite deep in the forest with my friends Ron and Al. As the evening progressed, we grilled steaks over a smoky fire, brewed up a pot of lapsang souchong tea and fired up a few really good cigars. There are few things as satisfying as the quiet talk of good friends around a wilderness campfire.
At one point, a screech owl sent his shrill call reverberating among the stands of pines and hemlocks. At three locations deeper in the forest, wild turkeys gobbled their alarm, in frightened response to the call of the owl. Flying squirrels darted from tree to tree in the night, investigating our intrusion into their silent world.
When the hour grew late, we doused the fire, loaded our backpacks and began the journey back to the world of men. Our path took us through the forest, beneath the brooding countenance of the overhanging foliage. We arrived at the horse trail which bisects that part of the forest and continued on to a level area alongside the woodland stream named Pine Run. This was a soggy area that hosted a large patch of fiddlehead ferns.
In that special place, on that special night, the moon cast rays of silvery light down upon the forest floor. The fiery incandescence of the sun reflected off our nearest astral neighbor, blanketed the forest floor with silver. And there, within each ray of light, spiraled a myriad of fireflies. We stood in quiet reverence, speechless, filled with awe. Long minutes passed. No one said a thing. Finally, I heard Ron utter, “Thank you!” before we continued on our way down the trail toward humdrum everyday lives of work and bill paying.
All of this was in the works, whether we had been present or not. But, what winding trails, across the span of time, brought us to that very spot at that very time of night so that we might witness such a scene.
I have wandered among the hushed silences of churches, cathedrals, mosques and temples. All exemplify great beauty, expressing man’s struggle to reach out to eternity, to seek meaning in our existence. None, however, compare to the exquisite beauty of the cathedrals of tree and shrub sang into reality at the dawn of creation.
Our entire physical being, as well as that of all other creatures, of all that is or ever has been or ever will be, consists of atoms that were once the dust of stars. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
From a biological standpoint, we share creature-ness, DNA, for instance, with all living things, even the dread brown recluse and the perhaps even more fearsome black mamba. We share more than 98% of our DNA with our nearest mammalian kin, chimpanzees. Less than 2% separates us from another relative, the gorilla.
We even share creature-ness with plants, from the mighty oak and the regal sequoia to detested poison ivy and crabgrass. Hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms form around an atom of iron to produce a molecule of hemoglobin, while those very same atoms join an atom of magnesium to produce chlorophyll.
Above and beyond such scientific sticks and pieces, if one keeps one’s spirit open to such realities, a sight like fireflies spiraling in the moonlight sparks a sensation like that of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s when he speaks of feeling like one great transparent eyeball during his tramps along rural New England bi-ways. If one can remove oneself for precious moments from mankind’s incessant noise and close down the inner chatter, one may sense the heartbeat of all living things, the heartbeat of life itself.
The Gaea principle becomes reality, that the fragile planet we share is one living, throbbing organism consisting of an infinity of organs, from the tiniest microbes to sea dwelling leviathans and the complexities of man himself. With a projected million species estimated to perch upon the abyss of extinction, the time has come to take to heart the wisdom of the philosopher Val Plumwood, who tells us, “Humanity’s task is to resituate non-humans in the ethical and to resituate humans in the ecological.”
A young friend of our daughters, who had grown up in a big city apartment, once lamented that she could not imagine what it would have been like to have had a back yard. A child, any child, including the child that endures within us all, is spiritually deprived by living a life encapsulated in an artificial environment where one never experiences a hawk gyrating through the skies, a cottontail rabbit crashing off into the brush or fireflies dancing in the moonlight.