"In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous."
In the summer of 1996, i skipped my high school graduation and took off to Europe to explore the shape of history and get a sense of what it meant to be a hopeless juvenile drunkard. I ended up in Rome and lined up for a few hours outside the famed Sistine Chapel. Once inside, i wandered around in awe all afternoon. I wasn’t really familiar with any of the works or the time period in which they were created, i just looked as if i had dropped in from another planet and saw craftsmanship and imagination and mythic renderings that seemed to surpass their inherent meanings which i couldn’t yet understand. Because i was saving my money for cheap wine and over-priced lodgings, i bypassed the expensive guided tours and just walked from group to group listening in on explanations. The painting i remember most vividly was Raphael's School of Athens, in which (so the guide said) Plato and Aristotle are walking thru a ‘mythical’ school with a halo shaped arch above their heads. Plato is pointing upward, showing his preference for mathematics and the realm of pure ideas while Aristotle points down toward the Earth indicating his scientific inclinations and philosophies of the material world. Their ‘master’ Socrates is off to the left counting the arguments on his fingers. That night, drinking wine with friends, the image came back to me and somewhere in the confusion and darkness of my adolescence, my own interpretations began to emerge.
Aristotle was a shadowy character, whose works to this day remain almost wholly lost. The small amount of commentaries and fragments of lectures that did survive, have helped shape and influence scientific paradigms and narratives all thru the ages beyond Athens. A student of Plato himself, Aristotle studied for many years at his academy until he left to pursue more ‘practical sciences’. The emphasis on pure theory and mathematics may have been to far removed from his experiences and interests in what he later called teleology; explaining things by reference to their purpose. He intuited that matter is essentially characterless and amorphous and that the basic things in the world (of the Earth) are Substances, which come about when Matter is combined with Form. Using the classic example of the Oak tree, the acorn already has the Form of the tree inside it and when it is combined with the Matter of dirt and water, the Substance of the tree moves toward its purpose to fulfill its inherent design by growing into Oak-substance. Aristotle spent many days exploring the teleological aspects of lagoons and forests and thru studying these systems created whole philosophies and theories, ranging from biology to meteorology. He was a key trixter figure in the story of Western science and yet his approach may have been more pagan and holistic than his interpreters and empiricist discrediters may have liked. He saw all his fields of study as interpenetrating and refused to reduce substances to their tiny parts, the opposite of which seems to have been inherited by subsequent generations of Western scientists and become the paradigm which they have inspired and informed. A paradigm of reduction and separation, of division and alienation. The world has become an abstract theory and experience has been rendered quixotic; left to the poets and the artists to wrestle with.
What we are now remembering, after our long fall from the pre-scientific garden, is that matter is not the solid and dependable reference point we thought it was. It is not something to be sliced up and categorized from the outside like some perpetual high-school dissection. It is not what is ‘out there’. It cannot be viewed objectively, be known from without. We are forever saturated with its movements and like a fish in water, we cannot recognize it for it is everywhere and in every process. Matter moves to the rhythm of immortal life and it dances thru all possible combinations, transforming from one form to another. It is part of the Unconscious Mind, the whim of Gaia. It cannot be created or destroyed, but shuffles around from tree, to body, to lake, to air. It wanders thru the Family of Eight in a complex and varied rhythm of exchange, which leaves our realities and our perceptible processes in its wake.
Despite the oppositions of Aristotle, we have reduced Matter to its tiny pieces and have looked ever-deeper into the atomic and sub-atomic to discover more and more ways to separate the parts from one another, only to find that it is not the parts that have given shape to the world, but the underlying energy of life itself which has brought the pieces together. An indefinable force that permeates all things and dodges ownership by body or species. As Thoreau once said, ‘There is suggested something superior to any particle of matter, in the idea or mind which uses and arranges particles.’ The whole is, of course, greater than the sum of its parts. The whole is holy, huge. Holistic science hints at its vastness. It is a she and She is our Mother.
"There can be no theory of any account unless it corroborate the theory of the earth. "
The Gaia hypothesis, developed in the early 70’s by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, has radically changed our view of where we live and how connected we all are. It seems fitting that the micro and macro would come together thru this long time dialogue between an interplanetary Jet Propulsion scientist and a micro-biologist, as if a timely metaphor for the possibilities of inter-discipline communication. Now that this theory is coming into its own and the long separated schools of science have slowly begun to share insights, Gaia is beginning to pull together theories like the interdependent web of life it has long held in equilibrium. This is the emergence of what William Irwin Thompson calls the ‘ecology of consciousness’, the embodiment of differentiation among minds in many areas who begin to notice how they are all playing in the same vast field of the Mother.
The new theory of the earth is a modern scientific rendering of archaic knowledge. Where once we stood in the swarms of myth, dipping our hands into the stream of story to which we all belonged, knowing the animals and plants and mountains and lakes to be part of our very being and sharing the same Earthly Matrix of energy, now, after a momentary lapse of remembrance, we have looked back from outside and seen the vision once more. We have seen the impossibly intricate web of life of which we are a conscious strand.
Gaia was once defined by Lovelock as ‘A complex entity involving the earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.’ 2 So in order for Gaia to begin to be understood, life itself needs to be re-defined thru a wider lens.
My Webster’s dictionary defines life as ‘that property of plants and animals (ending in death) which makes it possible for them to take in food, get energy from it, grow etc.’ Every scientific discipline has its own definition for what life is. Each one looks thru its own particular lens. From the Gaian perspective, life is all about boundaries. All living systems have them to one degree or another. Trees stop at their bark, we stop at our skin, the Earth herself stops at the outer layer of her atmosphere and is surrounded by space. This does not mean, however, that there is no communication, no influence from the outside. All things alive are in constant dialogue with all other things alive, and dead. Animate interacts with inanimate. We may have physical boundaries but our range of influence and our sensitivities might be incalculable.
Our main mode of communication, as a species, is perception. We, the human node, communicate with the planetary systems thru our own individual systems and perception is the simultaneous record of the exchange. As a part of the system, we cannot exist outside it and therefore what we perceive and how we perceive it is crucial to our survival. Other aspects of Gaia communicate differently, as perception and interpretation vary from microbe to fern to ocean.
Bounded systems are open to the ebbing and flowing exchanges of matter and energy from other bounded systems. What gives them the Gaian connection is that they are open to these exchanges and yet keep themselves in a state of homeostasis, a dynamic state of constancy. The tree transpires upwardly the flow of water while drawing up more water from the soil. The tree shares in the dialogue between soil and air, helping to regulate the constant equilibrium of both (not to mention the symbiotic relationships innumerable with fungi, little critters and maybe cautious lumberjacks) while providing for its own life needs and growing out its teleololgical pattern. The tree appears to stop at its bark and yet its effects on the systems to which it belongs cannot be named or counted. It is an intricate part of the Gaian organism. It regulates itself while partaking in the regulation of the whole. The tree participates in the system as an individual, bounded system and becomes part of the larger systems as forest, eco-system, continental landmass and on and on until the entirety of Gaia comes into focus. All levels of the system are self-perpetuating and act as pieces of even larger systems. Cells have walls, oceans lap against land, air bumps into its own boundaries, Gaia bobs and weaves in space.
What a feedback system means is that the output of a process becomes the input of the same process. Gaia is the larger process regulating itself thru the cosmic influences and exchanges outside its boundaries (Sun and Moon etc.), and the myriad internal loops of plant-animal-fungus-ocean-air-soil communities to which we all somehow belong. Energy and matter are fed back into the system and life carries on.
But even life itself is a huge bounded system, writhing and evolving in dialogue with death. What is animate is always interacting with, shaping and being shaped by what is inanimate. The now famous redwood tree analogy first used by physicist Jerome Rothstien is useful here. The Giant Redwoods (Sequoia Gigantea) that still occupy patches of the coast just south of here are the oldest living things around. Some of them have reached over 3000 years. The analogy runs something like this:
Of the thousands of tones of tree that is a Redwood, only about 3 percent is alive at any given moment. Over 97 percent of the tree is ‘dead matter’. The only place where the Redwood is really alive and growing (aside from comparatively small amount of needles and seeds etc.) is between the bark and the heartwood. Within this thin layer of living cells (known as cambium) all life and growth takes place. The whole living system of Gaia seems to embody a similar model. We, and all the living organismic communities within Gaia, inhabit a thin circumferential layer between the dead matter of thick rock and Earth core and the onionskin of our atmosphere. We live in the space between the bark and the heartwood, between the layers of the old and inanimate.
Now the unique thing about trees, as opposed to most living organisms, is that they contain within them an inanimate record of what was once animated and alive. The heartwood forms rings, which become the coded alphebetic language of the tree as it interacts with itself and its surroundings over the millennia. Reading these rings we can figure out how much rain we had the year Captain Vancouver came to town, or how big the salmon runs were when Buddha was wandering ragged in India. Geologists have long known that Gaia is a similar system which leaves its own written history of alive turning dead and animate bouncing off inanimate in the rocks and ridges of our landscapes. We can read these tales and look even further back into the much larger Gaian narrative to see what was going on when the dinosaurs were about.
So the old view of the Earth as a strictly inanimate and dead object bobbing in space is only about 97 percent true. What we cannot overlook is the other 3 percent to which we belong, the crucial layer, which keeps the narrative of the Earth alive and writes its story in the same synchronous breath. What we represent, from the point of view of this analogy, is not the accidental and impossible swapping of energies and microbes, but an essential part of the vast living community of busy and doubtful authors of the present. As we become conscious of these processes and bring them into the light of our knowing, we take further steps into the harmonious self-regulating system to which we belong. We become conscious co-creators of the ineffable now. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford spin it well in The Myth of the Goddess:
‘Once a vision of life as an organic whole is accepted in principle, humanity becomes in one sense a co-creator with nature, in so far as it can foster, ignore or destroy its identity with nature, for nature’s continued existence depends ultimately on the kind of consciousness we bring to bear on it.’
Jacob ‘Monk-e’ Rodgers
East Vancouver, Greater Cascadia
2Gaia – A New Look at Life on Earth – J.E. Lovelock. Pg. 11