Nature Is Kinship and Relationship

David George HaskellApril 21, 2020NaturePerSpectives

What is nature? Our hands have an answer. Lift yours: look, a palm, thumb, five fingers.

Rub your fingers together and feel the textures of skin. Sniff: a long inhale from the aromas on the back of the hand, then the palm. Listen to the friction of fingers on your earlobes. Taste the salty tang of fingertips.

So many sensory impressions. Each one speaks of nature.

Nature is not something outside ourselves. It’s not a wilderness somewhere beyond our homes. Nature isn’t an alien or an “other.” We are Nature.

This belonging takes many forms. The five digits of our hands and feet contain memories of ancient family history. We inherited our five fingers from the fleshy-finned fish that crawled onto land 400 million years ago. Some of these ancestors had seven or eight digits. If they had been the survivors instead of the five-toed ones, we’d be counting not in decades but by increments of 14 or 18. Remember that on your decadal birthday! When we see the architecture of our hand, we’re seeing that we belong to an ancient family lineage. The plan of our hand also connects us, through the family tree, to other vertebrate land animals. Birds, dogs, frogs – we all share a five-fingered blueprint, greatly modified in each branch of the family tree.

Our senses also have deep roots and unite us in kinship with other beings. A sense of touch and smell is shared by all life. Even simple single cells can feel physical touch and pick up the chemical aromas of their surroundings. Hearing is more specialized in each part of the family tree. The hair cells that pick up sound in our ears descended from the tiny hairs on the surface of single cells, like the planktonic cells that swim to this day in ocean and pond water. These hair cells also gave rise to our ability to see. The light-sensitive cells in our eyes are modified hairs, their tips no longer beating but welcoming light in their protruding arms.

We are one part of an amazingly diverse genealogical tree. Part of our nature is to belong to this family.

Not all the family members are pleasant. Malarial cells and viruses are our kin, too, sickening us as they jump between hosts. Nature’s family – just like human families – is not free of danger or disease. But it is our home, our place of origin. Our challenge, then, is to find ways to heal its brokenness and help its vitality and goodness in the future.

Flex your hand muscles. Feel the delicious physicality of your fingers, their heft and presence. Here is another part of nature. Every part of us and every motion of our bodies is made from atoms that came from other beings. The oxygen that powers our hands and keeps our consciousness alive came from trees, grasses, and ocean plankton. Every action and thought is made from minerals in soil and the molecules of other animals and plants. Every bite of food is nature. This is true regardless of whether that food came from an industrial supply chain or from a windowsill planter of herbs. Human body, mind, emotion, and action are partly made of trees, ocean, soil, and the many living beings that sustain us.

Nature is evolutionary kinship. Nature is the ecological connection that sustains us.

Nature is also community. I gaze at my hands and think that I see an individual, a “self.” But this is an illusion. My skin is partly made of human cells, but also from dozens of species of bacteria. Without them, I’d sicken. The same is true of my gut. This living community is deeper still. The bacterial community of our mothers shaped us in the womb when we were growing embryos. We are walking communities. What seems like an individual body is an intersection of relationships among many species. Our nature, then, is of interconnection. This is true of other species, too. Tree leaves and roots function only through their deep connections to fungi and bacteria. Take away these connections and the plant withers. Even the microbes that live in the ocean – sometimes millions in a single drop – are networked into community. Each cell specializes on a task that it does best, relying on others for the rest of the essential work needed to stay alive. Nature is relationship.

We’re made from nature. But nature also far transcends our bodies. Before humans evolved, millions of species lived in the Earth’s forests, oceans, rivers, and grasslands. They made these habitats what they are today, building soil, creating richly varied physical spaces, and suffusing the world with nutrients. Hundreds of species live in a single drop of ocean water or scrap of soil. A single tree can host thousands of insect species and dozens of birds. There is more diversity in a small patch of urban parkland than any one person could know in a lifetime: tens of thousands of bacteria and fungi, hundreds of plants and animals.

There’s a paradox here: nature is both about the most intimate kind of belonging and a community whose size and complexity we can never grasp. Nature is both a cozy home and a humbling vastness.

Despite the pollution and losses of habitat and species in the last centuries, much of the diversity of the living Earth persists and, if we allow it, will flourish long into the future. Nature is made from interconnection, and so our task is to find how to be productive members of life’s community. I suggest that a necessary first step is to recognize that nature isn’t some “other,” outside of us. Then, we can cultivate relationships in the human and beyond-human world. Get to know our extended family and community.

What species live in our neighborhood? What people, forests, soils, and oceans do we connect with when we eat? What is beautiful and what is broken in these connections? Where might our work be helpful? Out of these lived relationships comes the knowledge of how to act.

David Haskell’s work integrates scientific, literary, and contemplative studies of the natural world. His book, The Forest Unseen, was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction and recipient of numerous honors including the National Academies’ Best Book Award for 2013. The book has been translated into ten languages. Haskell’s second book, The Songs of Trees, examines biological networks through the lives of a dozen trees around the world. The book was winner of the 2018 John Burroughs Medal and the 2020 Iris Book Award, named one of the Best Science Books of 2017 by NPR’s Science Friday, selected as a Favorite Science Book of 2017 by Brain Pickings, and in the 10 Best Environment, Climate Science, and Conservation Books of 2017 at Haskell received his BA from the University of Oxford and PhD from Cornell University. He is Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and is a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He serves on the boards and advisory committees of local and national land conservation groups. Haskell’s classes have received national attention for the innovative ways they combine action in the community with contemplative practice. In 2009, the Carnegie and CASE Foundations named him Professor of the Year for Tennessee. In addition to his books, he has published scientific papers, essays, poems, and op-eds.