The Meaning of Life is About …

...Finding What Connects Us to the Rest of the World

Posted on: May 1st, 2020

Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #4

In his seminal book “My First Summer in the Sierra,” published in 1911, John Muir said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” If you have spent any time in a tropical or temperate rainforest, or in a northern deciduous forest, or in a redwood forest, this thought—condensed by Muir himself from an earlier, longer note in one of his journals—gives tremendous meaning to our role and place in the planet. Nothing in nature stands isolated, a life by itself, but it is connected to everything else around it, us included.

Pick anything, a bird, a mammal, a plant, or a mushroom. If you “pick it out,” physically or metaphorically, you will begin to see the deep meaning of Muir’s quote. “Picking it up” means, more realistically, studying, researching what we know about a creature, and thinking about how it connects to others and, ultimately, to ourselves.

Take, for example, a big, old, dead tree in the forest. “Oh, how sad,” you may think. The end of life. Perhaps hundreds of years growing from a small seed dropped by a bird (one connection) into a tangle of forest, germinating, struggling to catch any bit of light that it can, putting out feeble but deep roots into the loamy soil. Several connections there to air, light, soil, and water. It extracted nutrients from the ground (more relationships), and painfully slowly grew taller and more robust. This tree saw fires and droughts, lived through insect attacks, and felt the claws of bears, squirrels, and other climbing animals. As it grew, it began connecting to other entities, first to other trees nearby through the infinitely jumbled mass of intertwining roots, symbiotic bacteria and fungi, and the minerals and nutrients released by other decaying organic matter. It connected to lichens and mosses that grew on its trunk and over its branches. Birds nested in them too, and hundreds of insects and other invertebrates roamed, burrowed, scampered, hunted, and were hunted in its growing surfaces. The connections become myriad. Perhaps one of our ancestors harvested its fruits or collected its dead branches for a fire. Humans became one of the links to this living ecosystem.

Move forward several hundred years, and the majestic tree lies dead, horizontally on the forest floor. When we encounter it, we see that it is now richer in connections than when it was alive. Hundreds of creatures now depend on its accumulated biomass. Its tissues and nutrients give life to fungi, and insect larvae; lizards, and salamanders hide under its rotting branches; birds, and small mammals harvest this bounty. You may collect some of its wood, or harvest mushrooms, or marvel at an incredible insect that makes its home in this “dead” tree, now more alive than ever.

Every animal that lives at Lindsay, every patient that we take in at our wildlife hospital, every tree and plant around our building and in our neighborhoods, is part of our own ecosystem, a mixture of an urban and semi-urban patches of life, connected via streams, vegetated paths, and airways to other areas of wilderness. And we’re there, in the middle of it, playing different roles, making connections. And, more importantly, making decisions that can enhance or diminish this beautiful tangled web of life. A house finch built a nest under the eaves of my porch. The parents collected many types of seeds, bits of grass, maybe fruit, and regurgitated the mixture into the chicks’ mouths. It was fascinating to watch. There may be a dozen or two different plants that sustain a finch’s brood. And each of these plants has its own little web of connections, to the soil, water, insects, worms, fungi, bacteria, and so on. Our porch became their chosen home. Our choices become life-and-death decisions for these and other creatures. Do we know what those choices are and what they mean?

We are all connected, to our wildlife, to their habitats, and to the broader web of life. Discovering these connections is one of the greatest pleasures of my life. I learn something every day and the lessons and infinite. You can find some of these connections—and better yet, create new ones—with us through our online and again through our live programs once we reopen to the public. We promise you and wild, wonderful ride.

Until we see you in person again,

Carlos de la Rosa

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