On the brink of change
Everyone, whether bear, goose, aspen, or salmon, hears the whispers of the sunlight slanting through those first days of autumn.
Autumn time may be the year’s setting sun, but the final songs of deciduous leaves are songs of celebration. They are vivid hands thrown up by waving arms of trees, greeting the abundance gifted to us by our temperate ecosystem. Ash leaves spirited up on crisp breezes pour their yellow hearts into the rapturous blue of autumn skies and come spinning, fluttering down in laughing golden rain. Their bright carpet echoing the song for days and days until the first snows lay soft hush over all those in need of rest.
On the cusp of autumn, we stand at the threshold of great seasonal change. As rising generations on the brink of environmental catastrophe, we also stand on a threshold of great social and ecological uncertainty. The familiar threshold of autumn promises springtime on the other side of winter. However, what lies on the other side of the threshold we occupy as a species today can be determined only by how we walk through the door.
We are not alone
What we call home—the climate, landscape, and plants and animals that provide for our every need—is rapidly changing. Human beings are responsible for these changes, and are deeply responsible for remediating them. But how do we stay rooted to a place that is shifting under our feet? How do we cope? How do we help our ecological communities to cope?
Standing here at the threshold of such change can be frightening, disorienting, and lonely. But we should remember that the human heart has never beat without the guiding rhythms of all our nonhuman relatives. Despite neglect and gross overexploitation, the rhythms of the Earth are still pulsing. The Earth teaches us, and it is up to us to hear her and to use those lessons as we move through life.
We can look to countless members of our living communities for guidance. But perhaps a good place to start is with the plants, who are the biological foundation of ecosystems and some of our oldest of teachers. Their timeless lessons of giving, belonging, courage, strength, rootedness, and faith are a beacon in the growing dusk.
Plants: the living foundation of ecosystems
If only the totality of my lifetime’s work could compare to the beauty, selflessness, strength, tenderness, industriousness, generosity, and importance of the work that a plant does in a single day. Plants are the great builders of ecosystems. Because of their awesome gift of photosynthesis, they can use sunlight, air, water, and soil to create the molecules of their own bodies. They bring the Earth to life. They then grant their masterpieces—the structures that they spend their lives building—to their ecosystem.
As animals, we breathe the oxygen plants exhale. We make our bodies from the carbon that they sequester from the atmosphere and fix into solid matter that we are able to ingest. Plants weave the fabric of our existence. If I ever feel estranged or alone, I remember this lesson that they so aptly illustrate—as long as you are giving to those around you, you belong.
Plants never run
Plants never run in the face of a storm. Following at the icy heels of receding glaciers, animals were their legs, bringing them with us as we moved north all over the globe. We cannot live without them, so we carry them with us wherever we go.
But plants do not run of their own accord. Learn from them courage. As the winds of change howl all around you, stand tall and strong; do not be afraid. Have faith in your roots. Deep roots are what hold you up against battering weather.
We all have roots that stretch over millennia, mountain ranges, rivers, oceans, ice, and savanna. The lives and wisdom of our ancestors root us to the Earth and give us the ability to adapt. Humans have lived in many different places at different times—knowledge of how they built their homes, what they ate, and how they cared for the land will help us survive in an uncertain future. Adaptation is a root growing around an obstacle in the ground, making its embrace of the Earth stronger.
Plant seeds often come to rest in the ground, sleeping there until conditions are right for them to grow. These dormant seeds are collectively referred to as the “seedbank.” Plants that first colonize an area establish the seedbank. As conditions change, the plant community changes and new suites of species add to the bank. When a disturbance such as fire reinstates conditions that were present in the past, plants suited to those conditions are awakened and take their place, performing their ecological role once again.
As individuals, we may be encased in cement and glass for much of our lives. As a species, however, we have not been walled off from the Earth for very long. The skills of our ancestors, our ability to survive, our ways of tending to the land, and our deep love and reverence for the Earth lie just under the surface like the seed bank—waiting for fire.
And that fire is coming.
The power of coexistence and cooperation
Borderlands between different ecological communities (called ecotones) generate a special species diversity and richness. This is because plant species from both ecosystems coexist in those areas. The variety of food plants present in ecotones attract many animal species, further increasing the abundance.
Our human communities occupy vastly different landscapes, and have different customs, material cultures, languages, laws, worldviews, and ways of knowing. These differences are so often the source of conflict. However, it is the common ground between cultures, where we contribute our diverse skills and work together, that generates the highest abundance of new ideas and innovation. Ecotones teach us that communities coming together and sharing resources should result in diversity and abundance, not conflict and competition. Ultimately, the lives of all our future generations depend on this cooperation.
To look around is to look inside
Every being traveling beside us on the Earth, every drop of water coursing through veins of rock and soil, every leaf turning on a breath of wind has something to teach us about the world that is around and inside us. It is up to us to listen not only to them—but also to ourselves. Everything we are—mind and body—is of the Earth. What the Earth asks of us, we ask of ourselves.