“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” 

~ John Muir

“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

~ Loren Eiseley

The idea that man is part of, and not separate from, nature underlies a whole lot of modern philosophy. I suppose that the old trope, that it was man versus nature, held sway when we were just beasts ourselves, fighting to survive. These days, we know that man is a part of nature, albeit one that has much influence on other aspects.

We excel as a species in survival due largely to our intellectual capabilities. We’re not really smarter than the beasts, but have the ability to think differently and more long-term. On our good days, we realize that survival is not just a personal act, but a societal one. We form societies to provide for more than what an individual can. First we bonded with another person, then as a family unit, then a clan, then tribe and now society. Our survival is dependent on all of society’s survival.

Writer Maria Popova notes, “Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter punctuated her writing and her painting with a series of experiments with spores, demonstrating that lichens — which Linnaeus considered the “poor peasants of the plant world” — are in fact not plants but a hybrid of fungi and algae: living reminders that the supreme vital force of life is not competition but interdependence, that we survive and thrive not through combat but through collaboration.”

We work as teams, and recognize the non-collaborating individual as different, a loner or rebel. Biologist David George Haskell explains, “The quietude and outer simplicity of the lichens hides the complexity of their inner lives. Lichens are amalgams of two creatures: a fungus and either an alga or a bacterium. The fungus spreads the strands of its body over the ground and provides a welcoming bed. The alga or bacterium nestles inside these strands and uses the sun’s energy to assemble sugar and other nutritious molecules. As in any marriage, both partners are changed by their union. The fungus body spreads out, turning itself into a structure similar to a tree leaf: a protective upper crust, a layer for the light-capturing algae, and tiny pores for breathing. The algal partner loses its cell wall, surrenders protection to the fungus, and gives up sexual activities in favor of faster but less genetically exciting self-cloning … By stripping off the bonds of individuality the lichens have produced a world-conquering union.”

He continues, “We are Russian dolls, our lives made possible by other lives within us. But whereas dolls can be taken apart, our cellular and genetic helpers cannot be separated from us, nor we from them. We are lichens on a grand scale.”

Biologist Lynn Margulis agrees, “…a lichen is a melding of lives. Once individuality dissolves, the scorecard of victors and victims makes little sense… The heartbeat of humans and the flowering of domesticated plants are one life. Lichens add physical intimacy to this interdependence, fusing their bodies and intertwining the membranes of their cells.”

Popova continues, “Because of this delicate interconnectedness of life across time, space, and being, any littlest fragment of the universe can become a lens on the miraculous whole. Sometimes, it is the humblest life-forms that best intimate the majesty of life itself.”

We are part of nature, and must take responsibility for that role. We need to do our share to protect it.

Edward Abbey made the Robert Michael Pyle quote famous, “Nature bats last.”

Additional information:

Maria Popova, Lichens and the Meaning of Life, 4/2/23, The Marginalian

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