You Are Nature

In between the storm window and the window proper of my study at home, I have been watching a spider in a web. At some point, a beetle found its way into that web. I didn’t witness its struggle, but I know there was one, there is always a struggle. I watched the spider spinning up the beetle, or feeding on her—I’m not sure which—but lots of legs were moving in their disconcerting, spidery dance.

Between the panes of glass, when I watch and when I don’t, the struggle of life and death, eat and be eaten, can easily appear to be the dominant reality.

It’s all a part of picture of nature I learned young, the larger story of preying on each other, not living AND dying but living rather than dying. My father took me to many live action nature movies when I was a child. In the darkened theater, I viewed lots and lots of vicious hunting predators bringing down terrified fleeing prey. Quite a bit of carnage we watched on a Saturday afternoon, every one of those stories bloody and violent. Eat or be eaten. The spider and the beetle between the panes of my study window, they appear to be nothing more than one more example of the generalizable truth. One living and one dying. A kind of balance, but not a sanguine one. Predation, food chain. This concept from naturalist Charles Darwin made its way into the thinking about human social relations as well. There is a food chain, there is a hierarchy of dominance that seems to apply to more than eating. Winners and losers in life, in the social fabric. One version of “survival of the fittest.”

But Darwinism and Darwinian order were not invented in the 19 th Century. In 16 th -Century Europe, the Great Chain of Being became the dominant social construct, a so-called “natural” set of relationships that ensured the monarch and the farmer, the soldier and the blacksmith, the priest and the midwife understood their places, ranked unceasingly, located inexorably between God and his angels up there and all the beasts of the earth down below. Oh, and the plants even lower. The Great Chain of Being is the ideological framework that made colonization, exploitation, and perpetual enslavement of humans not only possible but valuable and “right.” That Great Chain persists in our thinking today, even if we have in many ways moved beyond it. It is a part of our Western imagination. It’s in our DNA of binary thinking—either/or, winner or loser, “my way or the highway,” eat or be eaten.

The Great Chain of Being, that metaphor, that ideology of domination and rigid place, it tells us also something important—we are all connected.

And we are most definitely interconnected. If the chain breaks, the whole world will fall apart. We know that as we see species die off and glaciers sheer away and melt like cubes in a glass of iced tea because of the excessive warming caused by human activity. Yet, this world view, this particular and peculiarly limited notion of interconnection, provides a much less-than-life-affirming construct of how we might actually want to be with each other. Still, it is commonplace for us to think of the natural world as if we are not part of it, as if humans are above it or beyond it, with the right to dominion over it, as if we are higher on the food chain, as if the great Chain of Being is embedded in the earth and in our bodies. Humans have, indeed, exercised that belief. We look at the world and see resources—to mine, to exploit, to destroy if something is in the way of something important we want to do. We see resources even when we imagine the world is out there glowing and beautiful for us to look at, often from a distance. We regularly rank the worth of other humans, individually and as groups. It is commonplace to think of nature as a realm of competition, of the survival of the fittest, a distortion of Darwin’s premises.

But imagine, instead, a web of relationship, a wider circle, a larger life by which to view assumed antagonists. The spider in her web is not simply dominating the beetle, higher on the food chain. Rather, they are both on that web, living out their life stories, held together by the web. The web comes OUT of the spider’s body. But the web is also OF the spider, made of the very same substance which also makes the spider what she is. And the beetle’s body BECOMES the spider when she is consumed by the spider. Thus, the beetle BECOMES the web also, the sustenance that enables the spider to continue spinning the web and catching the beetle. And so, the web is also OF the beetle, as much as of the spider. And when the spider dies, as she will for that is the way of life, some other little being, perhaps a beetle, certainly a fungus or a bacterium will live from her body, BECOMING the spider in a new way. At the most basic level, the spider, the beetle, the web—they are all made of the same cosmic elements. The differentiation of them each from the other, this serves to create a diversity of beingness that puts life—whole, lively and thriving nad not just one form of it—at the center of things.

Eat or be eaten, survival of the fittest, meaning the one that can simply dominate, such an understanding ruptures the radical insights of Darwin’s actual observations.

Such an understanding conceives them in the terms of hierarchy and domination, attitudes common in all human thinking. But Darwin wrote this, too: “Never say higher or lower. Say more complicated.” Darwin’s work invited us to think in complex relations and harmonies rather than in hierarchies, to hear the one voice made of many unique voices, a unity out of the interaction and involvement of plenitude and diversity. Darwin invited us to see the spider and the beetle in her web not at odds with each other but in a relationship of mutuality and self-sustaining thriving, with life at the center. What does that have to do with us, you might ask?

Where do we come from? What are we? Science gives us so many good answers about our origins, and about the origins of spiders and beetles, too, and all manner of beings. Ursula Goodenough is Emerita Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis where she engaged in research on algae and authored a textbook on genetics. Her best-selling book The Sacred Depths of Nature is in a second edition after 25 years in print. She, like Carl Sagan, is a scientist. Carl Sagan reminded us, so beautifully, so poetically, that “We are made of starstuff.” We are truly part of, not apart from, the oneness of everything. Sagan reminded us that “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.” THIS is what we are made of.

Goodenough amplifies this idea, her book moving from the Big Bang all the way through DNA and genetics codes, over 90% of which remain similar whether we are human beings or mice. We are just that related. Biological relationship we may understand easily—we know we are mammals, after all, with soft and sensing bodies. Thinkers like Sagan and Goodenough, they connect us to the entire emerging and still unfolding and vast universe. Goodenough writes: “What is central to the origination of Earth life is the history of the universe—the cosmic dynamics that have yielded our galaxy, our star, our planet, and the atoms that form living beings.” Subatomic particles and the simplest elements collided, gaseous clouds forming and condensing and exploding, stars forming and then shattering—the birth-and-death star cycles happening even now somewhere in our expansive universe, even as we sit on a green earth seemingly stable and unchanging. On this blue boat home, tectonic plates drift and crash into one another, though on a scale we can barely imagine let alone experience. And Goodenough reminds us that “We are embedded in the great evolutionary story of the planet Earth, the spare, elegant process of mutation and selection and bricolage. . . . We are connected all the way down.” Life in complex forms and relationships at the center. We have good reason to trust this science is true.

“Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity, here have we come, Stardust and sunlight, mingling through time and through space.”

“Life from the sea, warmed by sun, washed by rain, Life within, giving birth, rose to love. This is the wonder of time; this is the marvel of space.” We may sometimes feel like a river, like the sun, like a mountain, like the sky, like thunder, like the rain, like the moon. We may take on the characteristics of these formations, or describe our own human feelings in terms of them, finding peace in these connections. And because we are all born out of that some cosmic womb, these connections are more than metaphors. “Out of the stars swung the earth; life upon earth rose to love. This is the marvel of life, rising to see and to know.” We have good reason to trust the truth of science, and still the poets have something to remind us, too, of our deep and abiding relationship, relationship in and through our very bodily being. “Whoever [we] are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to [our] imagination, calls to [us] like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –over and over announcing [our] place in the family of things.”

Science gives us so many good answers about what we are and where we come from, and still only religion can help us to address ultimate mystery. Goodenough unites what is known as a religious naturalist orientation with large-scale evolution, linking religion and science in deliberate ways. “Religion,” she writes, “From the Latin religio, to bind together. The same linguistic root as ligament.” As Goodenough unpacks the science of us, she holds out the importance of religion for us, needful in a world and a universe still so filled with Mystery: “The Mystery of from where the laws of physics emerged. The Mystery of why the Universe is so strange. The Mystery of why there is anything at all, rather than nothing.”

“Ponder this thing in your heart; ponder with awe:” We are a part of and never, ever apart from the interdependent web of all existence. It is literally in our own DNA. It is in our bodies, making us exactly and beautifully what we are. Our seventh principle reflects this reality. And our choice to live as Unitarian Universalists means that our religion, our chosen faith tradition, echoes and expounds and calls us to recognize and to honor and to affirm this deep, material, and scientific connection. In Goodenough’s words, “We have throughout the ages sought connection with higher powers in the sky or beneath the earth, or with ancestors living in some other realm. We have also sought, and found, religious fellowship with one another. And now we realize that we are connected to all creatures. Not just in food chains or ecological equilibria. We share a common ancestor. We share genes for receptors and cell cycles and signal-transduction cascades. We share evolutionary constraints and possibilities. We are connected all the way down.”

The earth, our blue boat home, is the realm through which we have our being, and we are microcosms, fractals of its elements and its functions, just as the earth, our blue boat home, is a microcosm and a fractal of the wide universe.

“The womb of the stars embraces us; remnants of their fiery furnaces pulse through our veins. We are of the stars, the dust of the explosions cast across earth.” So, “Blessed be the tie that binds,” the interconnections our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition call us to recognize and to delight within. “It anchors us. We are embedded in the great evolutionary story of planet Earth, the spare, elegant process of mutation and selection and bricolage. And this means that we are anything but alone.” May we know it and feel it. May it ever be so.

Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature. 1st Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature: How Life Has Emerged and Evolved. 2nd Ed. Oxford University Press, 2023.

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