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Excerpt from Dreams

Life Wants To Live (p. 114)

From chapter "Life Wants to Live"

Have you ever planted seeds, and having planted them, watched the plants reach their tiny stalks above ground, so slender as to be nearly translucent, so fragile you could accidentally kill them with the barest slip of a finger?

I have seen redwood seedlings not an inch tall, seedlings who could be crushed or pulled up effortlessly, seedlings who if they live can grow to be three hundred and fifty feet tall, and two thousand years old. Did you know that grizzly bears are born blind and hairless, and the size of chipmunks? Or that baby alligators are only eight inches long when they emerge from their eggs, and that they need their mother’s protection for up to two years, and that only one out of twenty survive to adulthood? Have you ever seen tadpoles so tiny that a hundred would fit in your cupped hands, and have you seen these tadpoles grow, and grow, and have you seen some of these tadpoles eaten by backswimmers and the nymphs of dragonflies, and yet others live, and grow, and sun themselves in shallows and grow legs and lose tails and then for the first time walk on land?

I am lying on my stomach where meadow meets redwood forest. The ground is wet from last night’s misting rain. My clothes quickly soak, my skin quickly chills.

I hear the soft sounds of songbirds—I’m grateful that some remain—carrying out their daily activities, and in the distance I hear a crow. The chuckling of a red-legged frog in a nearby pond. A fly buzzing overhead.

Looking down, at first I see a more or less undifferentiated mass of life and death. Life in the younger and older plants, death in the fallen cascara leaves and redwood needles who are themselves slowly becoming life by becoming soil.

But then, as I begin to get past my own discomfort at the cold and wet, and, more to the point, as I begin to grant even the few seconds it takes to stop paying attention to me to begin to pay attention to what (or who) is directly in front of my face, I begin to see.

A tiny mushroom, an inch tall, stalk as slender as a hair, button smaller than the butt on this pen I’m writing with. A fir tree, two inches tall, already forked, tiny green needles already stiff and sharp. Three-lobed plants whose names I do not know, and slender plants who stretch to their full height of less than the length of my finger. Mosses grow beneath. They are fragile, and I take care not to dislodge them.

I see first one spiderweb, wet with dew, and then another, and another. I see huckleberry leaves, each its own shade of green. Some leaves are complete, some have small bites taken out of them, by whom I do not know.

I look closely at one salal leaf. The dew, barely beaded, looks slick across its surface, like sweat, like delicate sweat on your lover’s chest. The leaf is a rich green, with a few dark spots, where some fungus is feeding. Another tiny plant, this with a single unopened flower, pale pink, at its tip. An old piece of redwood, long fallen off the stump of a tree cut eighty years ago, slowly losing shape, covered with lichen, tan roots of something—someone—sprouting out like hair.

I see another spiderweb, and then beneath, tiny greenish stalks of some fungus growing from a half-buried piece of that murdered tree. A fruit fly lands on the pocked leaf of a native blackberry. A gnat navigates this forest of six-inch-tall plants. Birds come closer. I hear frogs nearby. Another spiderweb, this with a spider smaller than the point of this pen at the web’s center. And then I see the pale peach crown of a two-inch mushroom rising between crowded stalks of salal, and another emerging from beneath fallen leaves.

All of this life in one small area, in only a few moments of noticing. If only we will look. If only we will see.

Let’s step back, start again. I have in my life seen spiders who have lost three legs, yet still they live. I’ve seen a young bear who was shot in the back right knee by someone with more firepower than heart; I saw her soon after she was shot; I saw her wound abscess, and I saw the abscess grow to the size of a salad plate; I saw my mother give this young bear antibiotics; I saw this bear survive and grow and return to my mother’s house to show my mother her first twin cubs; I saw this hurt bear raise these cubs; I saw her back right leg remain tiny, shriveled, no more useful than a peg, as she could not bend it, could not put weight on it; I saw her survive. I saw my mother moments after she broke her neck in the car wreck that I had a premonition about. She had a C2 fracture, a Hangman’s fracture. The damage was so severe to her neck and to her nerves that doctors—world experts on this type of nerve damage, called bilateral sixth nerve palsy—said the only person they’d ever seen in the entire world with damage this severe never regained consciousness. I have seen her twenty years later close her eyes tight against the pain from this accident, and I have seen her stagger from the damage-induced vertigo. Yet still she lives on. I should have died any number of times. At birth, at nine months, at twenty- three years, at forty-four years. Yet I survived. When I was young I knew a cat whose head was run over by a car, popping out one eye, deafening him, shattering his jaw. Yet he survived (and, interestingly enough, after that seemed to think he was a dog, no longer interested in eating or sleeping with other cats, but only in eating dog food and sleeping curled against the dog’s belly).

The point? Life is tenacious.

I used to raise chickens. More than once I accidentally stepped on a chick—two hundred pounds coming down on perhaps a couple of ounces—killing him or her instantly. When I used to keep bees, I routinely accidentally crushed them between different parts of their hive. Just last night I was walking through the dark forest here when I heard the distinct and sadly familiar sound of a snail shell imploding beneath my feet—two hundred pounds coming down on half an ounce. I returned this morning and saw a beetle hauling away the body. It is not hyperbole to say that I cannot imagine how many minute creatures I have killed simply by walking, scratching, wiping my forehead. I don’t want to imagine how many I have killed by running into or over them with a car.

The point? Life is fragile.

Life is tenacious. Life is fragile. Life is fragile. Life is tenacious. Life relentlessly wants to live.

This is the real moral of the story of mass extinctions: life wants to live. But life wanting to live does not mean that no harm ever comes. Of course. Life wanting to live does not mean that bad things don’t happen. Of course. We all know this. Or should. And when harm comes, when bad things happen, life still wants to live. Relentlessly, desperately, lovingly, fully. Even in Chernobyl. Even in toxic waste sites. Even during the oxygen catastrophe. Even without oxygen.

Here’s another mistake that the “clear thinker” Sam Harris makes. He is not the only one to make this mistake; he has far too much company among the pseudointellectuals of the scientific priesthood. This mistake is a holdover from Christianity. Recall that he seems to blame “Nature” for mass extinctions, and recall that he implies that these mass extinctions have caused him to no longer trust “Nature.” Do you see the flaw (or one of the flaws) in his thinking? Do you see the unstated premise that binds him to fundamentalist Christianity? All he has done is change the name “God” to the name “Nature,” in that he is presuming that “Nature” is, like the Christian God, omniscient and omnipotent. How else can we explain him evidently believing that “Nature” can stop an asteroid? The question only makes sense if he believes that “Nature” is both monolithic and omnipotent, in other words, that “Nature” is God; otherwise, his whole argument is nonsensical, much like saying that just because I didn’t prevent my mom’s neck from breaking in a car wreck, that I’m not her friend, and that my wisdom, such as it may be, is not to be trusted. That’s absurd. I would have done anything to prevent the accident, but I could not. I had heartbreaking constraints, such as not being able to see around a broad corner; such as not being able to see a black tarp against the backdrop of a black night; such as not being able to anticipate that a semi loaded with plywood—the load covered with a black tarp—would have overturned moments before and blocked the entire road; such as not being able to even hit the brakes before hitting the tarp; such as not being able to convert that semi’s load of lumber into feathers, foam, and jello; such as not being able to repair a broken neck; such as not being able to take away her pain. Having had these constraints, I have done what I can to help. And who is to say that “Nature”—so long as “Nature” is not simply a code word for a monotheistic God— does not also have constraints? How did life respond to the oxygen catastrophe? Life responded as life does, by attempting to live. How did life respond to an asteroid striking the earth? Life responded as life does, by attempting to live. How is life responding to the horrors of industrial capitalism? Life is responding as life does, by attempting to live.

We cannot presume “Nature” is omniscient. We cannot presume “Nature” is omnipotent. If we do, we may as well drop all pretence and go ahead and just call “Nature” “God.” “Nature” isn’t God. “Nature” isn’t universe. “Nature” isn’t cosmos. And nature isn’t “Nature.” It’s just nature.
Life wants to live. Life so completely wants to live. And to the degree that we ourselves are alive, and to the degree that we consider ourselves among and allied with the living, our task is clear: to help life live.

That is the very least we can do. After all, life gave us our lives.