Friday, November 17, 2006

Do we really understand what life is?

We all travel the milky way together, trees and men... trees are travellers, in the ordinary sense. They make journeys, not very extensive ones, it is true: but our own little comes and goes are only little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.
- John Muir, naturalist, explorer, and writer (1838-1914)

There was a time, little more than a century ago, when the average person in any country travelled little more than 20 miles (32 km)--a day's ride on horseback or a very long walk--from the place where he or she was born during their lifetime.

Is Muir referring to the distances we travel in our lifetimes when he speaks of "our own little comes and goes?" I choose to believe that he meant something different.

A tree, quite apart from the beauty and magnificence of its presentation, also contributes oxygen to the air we breathe. For its whole lifetime. While most of us are arrogant enough to believe that we really matter, perhaps many of us matter to the universe not as much as the oxygen that the tree produces.

When we think of plant life, we say it's alive. But do we act as if each one has a life? Many vegetarians, for example, refuse to eat meat because it derives from animals that have been slaughtered, thus depriving them of their full lifetimes. Yet those very people think nothing of ending the lives of many plants as they consume their meals. Most don't even give a thought to the lives of the plants they kill.

We talk about SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence elsewhere in our universe, some of us as if its a certainty we will eventually discover. But we don't know how to communicate with non-human life forms on our own planet.

We know that some plants respond positively to classical music and to soft voices. And negatively to harsh rock music and yelling voices. Why would they do that if they didn't have a reason for doing so? Humans can lose the cilia in their ears and suffer emotional hurt from the same sources as plants react negatively, but we don't give credit to any claim that plants can either hear or feel emotions.

We judge the intelligence of animals by how well they can perform mental feats that humans can do. I am not aware of any research studying how well humans can perform the skills that animals can do. We don't care about that.

Humans can produce oxygen in a laboratory or a factory, at great expense. Trees do it with the resources available to them in the air and the ground. They perform other feats that impress scientists, but receive little attention from the general public. All for nothing and without the addition or consumption of extra natural resources.

Oh, we move around from place to place all right. And we have no trouble believing that we are at the top of the food chain and the pinnacle of the intelligence pyramid.

But we can't communicate with life forms other than our own right here on earth (at least not many of us can). And we are unable to do many of the things that other animals and plants can do right here in our own backyards.

"Little more than tree-wavings?"

"Many of [us] not so much."

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, striving to help us see the life around us for what it is rather than for what it isn't.
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