Behaving Like A Forest
Recently, I learned some things that changed my life. For example…
Ninety percent of the cells in our bodies are not uniquely human. At a cellular level, therefore, we are made up of exactly the same material as other life forms. We are, literally, elephants, redwoods, starfish, fleas and everything else. We are systemic beings made up of functions within functions within functions, inward and downward to the microbial, atomic and sub-atomic levels, and outward to galactic infinity. Our bodies are 50-75% water and that water, like the water in the soil - and soil itself, rise and fall twice daily with the moon, like tides. This is as true in an inland valley as it is on the coast.
I think about these things often and am astounded that I never learned this in school. How different life would have been if I had known that there are 4.5 million species of microbial insects in the soil, each with a distinct, interconnected and essential function. For a lonely adolescent girl in the suburbs of Los Angeles, it would have sustained me to look down at my oversized feet and know that I was standing on a global team of microscopic life-givers.
If I had known that when plants need phosphorous, they inject food into the soil for phosphorous-producing organisms, I might have understood that there was an alternative, literally at our feet, to the dynamic of getting what one needed by coercion, selling, or stealing.
If I had known that, at first contact, Native America lived in such a state of balance that people were disease-free; and that trees grew to be 300 feet tall, though the ‘green revolution’ that everyone was so excited about actually eroded and poisoned the soil so thoroughly that it’s now too depleted to support trees to grow above 70-100 feet, well, I might have seen long ago where to direct my sense of longing and rage.
The Big Ag of today began as a post-war scheme to sell nitrogen left over from making bombs. Now we are faced with lifeless soil and food that is lacking in the nutrients we need. The epidemics of cancer, auto-immune disease and psychological fragility have been directly linked to industrial agriculture. Big Pharma was Rockefeller’s brainchild for manufacturing medicine out of petrochemicals and ‘justifying it by paying for bogus research. But we cannot be healed by medicine created through torturing fellow animals. It is contrary to Natural Law. Besides, the preponderance of conditions we are trying to cure arise from mechanized living in the first place.
The fact that neither the world’s leaders nor the world’s school children do not have an explicit understanding of how the Earth works, and of our deep connection to all Life, is arguably one of the greatest failings of humankind. Monoculture mentality is the deadly legacy of global colonialism and monotheistic religions.
Regenerative agriculture is guided by the principle that if we create the conditions for Life to flourish, Nature does the rest. Nested within this understanding is that the bottom of the food chain is the most important. In other words, the invisible world, ie the microbes, the insects - and, I would add, the living spirits of things, make Life possible.
It’s not too far a leap to see the corollary among humans. Once we understand that the success of the Whole is dependent on the success of the many, then we understand that our task is to create the conditions for everyone to thrive. Not just the rich, or the light-skinned, or the educated. Everyone. And, in the same way that we can build healthy soil and trust the plants and the microbes to take it from there, once we get the hang of creating the conditions for humans to thrive, we could trust ourselves to know full well how to do so. These principles would apply to everything from government to education, parenting to foreign aid, and certainly farming and medicine. One can almost hear the cracks in the walls of global power. The complexity of such an experiment would be, as the saying goes, a wonderful problem to have.
In last month’s everyday gandhis podcast launch, I had a conversation with Palestinian nonviolent peace activist Ali Abu Awwad. He spoke of how Israelis and Palestinians need each other for mutual security, commerce and healing. At one point, he said we shouldn’t just live with each other, “we have to live for each other.”
Neither Israel nor the US understand that no one can ever be secure at the cost of someone else’s suffering. No amount of army checkpoints, bulldozed villages, weapons or propaganda will make Israelis safe if Palestinians are deprived of basic needs, dignity and respect – and vice versa. In the same way that we will never find health by taking medicine derived from torture, safety and security cannot be built on intimidation and secrecy.
Ali says, “Nonviolence is not a strategy, it’s an identity.” This is exactly how natural systems function. Yes, there is violence in the natural world. But it is part of a larger system of reciprocity that is designed to sustain the Whole. A forest, for example, is connected by deeply intertwined roots and invisible relationships. The trees communicate across long distances to share information about weather, food, danger, and other challenges. And when one tree is weak, the other trees send extra nutrients to the one that is struggling. The more we behave like a forest, the healthier we’ll be and the more comprehensively and reliably all our needs will be met and, therefore, threats will diminish. The forest does this naturally and at one time, humans did, too. Our task now is to effectively re-learn this. We all thrive or we all perish.