It was hot, and I went to the beach. It was a gorgeous summer day, and the beach was teeming with people, children running in and out of the waves, mothers holding babies in the shade, young people posturing, older people lounging and relaxing. I lay out my towel, careful to protect myself from the hot sand and anything else that might disturb me- I am one of the older people, I was there to relax.
But the sand flies were out in number. As they bit me I suddenly realized, came to re-connect, that this place I was sitting was not my own. I looked closely at the seaweed washed up and drying on the beach, at small sturdy sand grasses finding a hold in the dry salty earth, at the almost imperceptible (to me) movement of tiny mites, sand ants, a beetle on a leaf. Here was an ecosystem in itself, teeming with life; I was an invader.
My gaze settled back on the human population, and I realized with a jolt how disconnected we all were from the real, the earthly, experience of the beach. We were lying, splashing and stamping about, unaware of any other living interaction around us. This went farther than simply taking care not to leave cans or plastic behind us when we go; it had to do with our lack of belonging. We were on the beach, not of it. The sand fly admonished me: this is our ecosystem, not yours.
Where do we belong? What is the human ecosystem? If you ask a biologist, she will tell you that we humans are an apex predator, standing at the top of the food chain, without competitors and on whom no other animals prey. Apex predators are keystone species, in that they are crucial to the maintenance of an ecosystem, and have a large impact on the balance of life in a habitat. Other apex predators are wolves, brown bears, killer whales, and even small but powerful animals like electric eels or honey badgers, who have defense or assault mechanisms that few or no other animals can assail.
However, apex predators are also part of the ecosystem in which they live. Ecologists identify apex predators at trophic level four or five, meaning that they are at the top of the food chain web, above producers (ie plants) and secondary or tertiary predators who eat producers and each other. Apex predators tend to create balance, rather than destruction, in the habitats they inhabit. Wolves keep deer and elk populations in check, mostly hunting out the most vulnerable, which strengthens the gene pool of the deer or elk and in addition allows small forests to thrive, creating habitats for hundreds of other species. When wolves die they become prey to scavengers, are food for worms, decay and add to soil compositions.
We humans do none of that. We have established ourselves in an order above ecosystem, beyond trophic levels; we are not part of a food chain. We do not create balance in the habitats we dwell in; rather we destroy habitats and deplete resources. We do not become prey to scavengers when we die, we are isolated from nature even in death, filled with formaldehyde to stave off decay. In so doing, in establishing ourselves as hyper apex predators, humans have created the ultimate separation- separation from Earth processes itself.
I can’t but believe that this is at the root of our alienation. What other species live lives so distant from the Earth that formed us, and protects us? What other species destroy other species, not selectively, but with abandon? What other species destroy their own habitats willfully and wholesale, not creating balance but wreaking havoc? What other species have set upon their own species with such viciousness as we now see on a daily basis? Our lack of ecosystem has created an imbalance that threatens the earth and our own existence.
What then, is the solution? How do we go about finding and rejoining ecosystem and creating balance in the Earth habitat and in our own lives? Stephan Harding, professor and ecologist at Schumacher College, says in order to be part of an ecosystem we must find a place. This place is not in our house, in a room; it is a place in nature. It is a place I think, that we must immerse ourselves in, in small, and quiet, and integrative ways. If we do not live in it, we must visit it often, and often, we must do nothing in it, but simply be there. Observe and interact, but observe first and long and often- no interaction can be taken without thoroughly understanding the interaction and the place, our ecosystem. It is a place that should be observed over time, over seasons, in cold and warm and wet and dry.
Your place may be as small or as large as a garden outside your house, a park in your city, or the forest you can walk in nearby. Immerse yourself in your place often. Be there, and then observe and find reverence for the interactions around you. If you chose to act in your ecosystem, pull some weeds choking a strawberry plant, or dig up a plot of grass to plant a garden, or even just sit on a log in the forest, reflect on the life you are interacting with: the micro-organisms or small creatures in the soil, the weeds, the roots, the bark. Heighten your senses to hear, smell, touch, see, feel the environment around you. Make yourself part of your place.
Research has shown that simply interacting in nature can have healing benefits. Putting our hands in the soil exposes us to natural antidepressants. Walking in forests exposes us to phytoncides that have proven therapeutic benefits, increase human natural killer cells, reduce stress and hostility, create calm and slow us down. Imagine what consistent,reflective interaction in and with your chosen place can have: all of these benefits and additionally, the sense of care, appreciation, belonging and well-being that comes with finding your ecosystem.