“We are survivors of immeasurable events,
Flung upon some reach of land,
Small, wet miracles without instructions,
Only the imperative of change.”
Astronomer and poet, Rebecca Elson wrote this poem while contending with cancer that killed her at age 39. Just as Rebecca was confronted with her mortality by a life-threatening situation, so are we now forced to face our own impermanence in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
From her vantage point, spanning the worlds of science and art, she brings a unique perspective on what it means to be alive on Earth Day.
Although we humans may imagine that we are in control of our destiny and rule the Earth, when the moment of truth arrives — like the coronavirus — the blinders come off and we see ourselves as we really are: small, wet miracles without defenses or instructions.
While the old gods have been largely consigned to the dustbin of history, new gods continue to mutate into existence through science. At each stage, humans as spiritual, flesh-and-blood creatures have been pushed further to the periphery.
Galileo robbed us of the illusion that Earth was the center of the universe. Newton replaced God with the concept of universal laws that control the planets in an orderly process, like a giant, mechanical clock. Next, Darwin came along to show that, rather than being created in God’s image, we climbed out of the mud to become the crown jewel of evolution in an epic battle of survival between ourselves and all other species.
Then along comes quantum theory which defines existence in terms of sub-atomic quarks and neutrinos whose nature is a matter of probability. At each paradigm shift, science has pushed spirituality, community, and what it means to be living, breathing person further off center stage.
As an antidote to this, I was gratified to read Kate Brown’s recent piece in The New Yorker presenting a scientific model, which, at first glance, appears the most radical of them all. The crucial difference is that this biological model celebrates community along with the squishy, realness of us humans in all our glory: sweat, snot, amniotic fluid and all.
Brown presents a wealth of scientific evidence, demonstrating that the human body is not the self-contained vessel we think it is — just as a chair from the standpoint of quantum physics, is not a solid seat. Instead, a human being is more like a porous cloud: A microbial ecosystem swept “along in atmospheric currents, harvesting gases, bacteria, phages, final spores, and airborne toxins in its nets.”
Rather than being a distinct, separate entity, we are more an assembly of species. In other words, each of us is a community! This notion has added relevancy in the age of Coronavirus.
Throughout evolution, the fact that each of us is a community within a community promoted health. In indigenous cultures, sharing microbes with other people, along with all other forms of life, was a good thing: the more we shared the healthier we got, the better adapted to our environments and more fit as a social unit.
But that all changed with the industrial revolution and the resultant explosion in the human population. Pandemics become more frequent when living things are forced together in denser proximity, allowing novel microbes to jump to new species.
Perhaps most crucial, pandemics like the coronavirus are striking more often because of climate change. Warming and changing weather patterns shift the vectors and spread diseases. Heavily polluting industries also contribute to disease transmission.
Studies have linked factory farming — one of the largest sources of methane emissions — to faster-mutating, more deadly pathogens. “The same corporations that exacerbated the climate crisis are literally helping to create deadlier diseases, more quickly, in a world that keeps changing how they spread.”
So, under the cloud of the coronavirus, how do we celebrate Earth Day? First, buy local and support local farms. And, at the policy level, push Congress to generously fund climate and environmental justice in upcoming economic stimulus packages.
For ethical and moral guidance, perhaps it’s time to “go back to the future” and meditate on the wisdom of Indra’s Jewel Net, a revered metaphor in Buddhism, illustrating the interconnection of all things. The metaphor is as follows.
Indra’s realm is a vast net that stretches infinitely in all directions. In each “eye” of the net is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever affects one jewel effects them all.
This Earth Day, let’s remember each of us, and all beings, is a jewel in her net.