We are a curious bunch. We create groups through social interaction, but otherwise run around independently of each other and of the stuff we run around on, and when that running is done, only a strange kind of social interaction is left: memory. Or so we tell ourselves. I doubt the mariposa lily below tells herself this. Life is her memory. She remembers it when she grows again.
That’s all because, unlike humans, she doesn’t have a period of courtship, then a long stretch of child-rearing, then some time as an elder, keeping that child-rearing on track, socially giving strength and support to an all-important age cohort. The physical needs of children, independent creatures that only survive within a social sphere, drives the human species and its images of the Earth. To Mariposa Lily, though, the dried seed pod, sprung open, with its seeds long since released, is not death. There is no individuality in her, although there is a social group, which includes the big sage and bunchgrass she is growing among. How can we speak of climate change, when we can’t even speak of the water they hold for her, or the insects she brings to them? This is probably a cloudy question, so let me pose it again. Here in the harvest season, when the European calendar tells us life is coming to an end, preceding a resurrection in the spring, the lily above is dead, and the lichen below is, well, just a bit of stuff growing on a rock, if it’s noticed at all. It’s not stuff, though. It’s a community of algae and fungus, that mutually support each other and are, in their union, a life form. That’s about as social as humans are, but without the complicating individuality.
There are just no individuals in lichen’s world. The point is not that that we should learn a lesson in solidarity from the lichen. We are individuals, and it’s a strange thing. What we can learn from the lichen is that lichen is not human. Treating it as an individual colonizing soil, bark, concrete or stone is to only see ourselves. The more respectful thing is to recognize a multi-species life form, one that doesn’t even follow the same seasons that we do, and see the Earth as a continuous, inhabited space across 3.5 billion years or so. The blue-green algae in the lichen was here first, and, beat this, it’s actually a little animal, not a plant. Every lichen is a herd and a field in one. You need that when you are growing in harsh conditions. Climate change? Lichen has seen a lot. How can we speak of climate change, when we can’t even speak of lichen? Still, that’s probably a muddy question, too, so let me try again. Here’s the spruce forest floor at Big Bar Lake, in the shadow of the Marble Mountains, at 1100 metres elevation, or so, at the very end of the year. Year-in and year-out, this community remains.
We could tell a story about individuals competing with each other for resources, including light, nutrients and water, and we’d be right to apply that image of human social life in this case, and yet we’d be wrong, too. This is only partly a group of individuals. More durably, it is a community of species, living in balance together over time. They are sustaining themselves. The human model, of removing minerals, plant material, soil or water, to be distributed within human social networks, is not at play here. Any attempt to say that it is misrepresents the intricate balance that sustains this community over time. The needs of one plant are so enmeshed with the subtly different ones of another, that calling these separate species is only partially correct. They are more like a community. If we’re going to speak of Climate Change, we have to know what the change is. These days, a popular target is atmospheric carbon. Truth is, though, that’s just a consequence. The real climate change is the human insistence on reading the world with images of human bodies and social groups, which includes, a lot of the time, a release of atmospheric carbon. How can we see species loss due to Climate Change, if we can’t see that the forest above is a species? The plundering of it for wood is going to deliver far less energy than the process of fitting into it and becoming a part of its species. This concentration on human social utility is one of the big weapons of settler culture. It is also a big driver of climate change. Still murky? OK, take a look at the elder below.
This is the last cluster on a wild elder growing in a ditch in Okanagan Falls. Her ancestors once helped support the Syilx villages there. Now she is vulnerable to a road-clearing crew. However, look at her, while she’s here. She bears fruit in multiple clusters, held out for birds, who come and then spread her seeds in their droppings, and so she grows again. It’s hard to imagine elders without birds, just as it is hard to imagine birds without elders, because they are the same being. Yes, we’re used to the term “being” as a description of “human beings”, or just “the state of existence”, and in our usual great ape way consider it a story of life, or the animation of individuals, within distinct species. The elder-bird relationship, though, as much of a social relationship as the grandparent-parent-child-doll relationship of humans, is a state of existence. It is a being. It’s just not individual. Consider this: there are no songbirds if there are no spring flowers; there are no songbirds if there are no summer bushes; there are no songbirds if there are no summer fruits. How can we combat Climate Change if we insist on manipulating human images, atmospheric carbon, without at the same time planting flowers? Because when we talk of climate change, we talk of species extinction, drought, heat, floods, and so on, all within the human lens of the loss of individuals and their social connections to others. Usually, that means their ability to support us, or our ability to support ourselves by preying on their abundance, but all of these things apply to a world without birds for the elders, shade for the forest floor, mid-fall spring for the lichens, and big sage sharing water for the lilies. We can’t speak of the Earth’s climate until we stop speaking about ourselves.