Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Life on Earth

Those of us who own gardens in Southern California know that the California live oak tree is a protected species. Because I live in a canyon in the foothills, I have several on my property. In recent years, I have taken to preserving live oak seedlings, and nurturing them to maturity. I have one in my driveway that I raised from a sprout two inches tall and that is now taller than I am.

We also know that, since live oaks are protected by state law, we are forbidden to trim or otherwise alter them where they grow. This is, of course, well-intentioned but wrong-headed bureaucratic nonsense. It is what happens when one tries to write an organic process into law. Live oaks, as any other form of vegetation, benefit from judicious trimming. But I recall about two years ago, a couple in Glendale were ordered by the fire department to trim their live oaks, and then were fined $300,000 by the city council for having done so. Such is the inanity of government when it tries to do that which is in the interest of any living thing.

My point is that, today while I was watering in my back yard, I brushed up against a live oak which I had nurtured from a seedling and which is now about three feet tall. Its spiky leaves grabbed hold of my shirtsleeve and would not let it go until I paid it proper attention. It was, as I had known for some time, in need of re-potting, having long since outgrown the clay bowl in which I had raised it. And for a moment it occurred to me that the oak was trying to tell me something; that it was communicating to me a basic need which it was experiencing and which it could not satisfy for itself.

Now this set me to thinking that there are two fundamentally different ways of looking at life on Earth. One is that life is merely a concatenation of events which have no deeper meaning than that which appears in the present. This is the view of the atheists and the secularists, which is invading and infecting our society more and more. According to this view, I ought simply to be more careful how I move about my garden. But there is another way of looking at life. This way assumes that the Earth is a living thing, a spiritual as well as a physical presence, and as such, all that lives on Earth cannot help but express itself, and express itself particularly to us humans as the summit of life on Earth. This implies both that all that lives has some need and ability to express itself, and that we, in our humanity, have a responsibility to listen and to understand.

Now, do I think that my live oak was trying to communicate with me? No, I suppose not. But can I dismiss out of hand, and in a rude and arrogant manner, that it, too, like me, has the need and ability to express itself? No, I cannot do that. Perhaps it was reminding me, in some primitive, self-assertive way, that, though I had nurtured it, I was neglecting it. Perhaps all that lives on the Earth, insofar as it shares life with me, shares consciousness with me as well. And perhaps, just perhaps, its lowly form of consciousness reached out to me, sensing that I was feeling guilt towards it and seeking to remind me of the basic organic connection between itself and me. And that connection is two-fold: my having saved it from extinction, and transplanted and watered and even talked to it. And it, in its latent glory as an oak, a true native of the sliver of the Earth that I inhabit, that it would provide shade and shelter and inspiration and even awe to me.

In this way, was that oak tree, in its nascent vitality and beauty, reminding me of my humanity, and of the responsibilities of my humanity - not only to be human, but to enhance my human-ness by being aware of that which, though it may not be human, is nonetheless as alive and worthy as myself?