The largest known living organism is in Sevier County, Utah. It’s a stand of aspens, called Pando (Latin for “I spread”), covering 106 acres on the banks of Fish Lake. What looks above ground like thousands of individual trees is actually one giant, genetically consistent being with many parts.
The photosynthesis of each leaf delivers energy through each branch and trunk, energy that’s deposited in the shared root system as carbohydrates. When one tree is sick, the rest funnel it nutrients underground. It’s beautiful — a ready metaphor for unity and the invisible oneness of all things.
Preachers and poets have deployed it as just that. Ed Bacon, an Episcopalian priest in Manhattan and frequent guest on the Oprah Winfrey show, speaks of the Pando in his sermons. He connects it to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “network of mutuality,” and Catholic writer Thomas Merton’s message that “we are already one, though we imagine that we are not.” I started writing about it in this essay with similar aims — to use it as an illustration of the deep connections holding us all together.
Trouble is, the Pando is dying.
You can stare at the grove for a while before noticing what’s amiss. There are no saplings. It’s like a city made up entirely of retirees. Turns out the overabundance of livestock and large game animals in the area graze on the baby trees before they can get a good start, stymying the clone’s ability to send up new shoots.
In 2013, a group of conservationists funded the creation of an 8-foot wall around a portion of the grove to keep grazing animals out. And it worked. Young aspens, wild grasses, and wildflowers quickly filled the understory. Outside the fenced areas, though, the grove continued to dwindle.
Walls and fences complicate the simple, pleasing story of unity and oneness. What if protecting unity sometimes means putting up a “Keep Out” sign, to hold at bay those who would destroy it? What if really trusting the underlying oneness of all things and eschewing walls and fences means sacrificing something discrete, unique, and beautiful?
How small can you make it, how large, the boundaries of what you’re willing to identify with? Your state, your city, your neighborhood, your household, yourself? Your country, your continent, your planet, your galaxy? Any line you might choose to draw is arbitrary. Whatever we decide to designate as “not ourselves” could, in other circumstances, be close kin.
Sometimes we draw the line right down the center of ourselves, disavow qualities and behaviors we don’t like: I wasn’t being myself, we might say. Or That’s not who I am.
What if we have all been everything? Slaves and slave-owners, plague victims and royalty, the conquered and the oppressor, the untouchable and the elite? What if identity, this momentary snapshot of selfhood, is just a story, ungraspable as air?
These questions are not in vogue. Empathy and mutual identification have become increasingly taboo across lines of racial and gender identity and political affiliation. All the acronyms keep getting longer as we wield a scalpel to create finer and finer lines of demarcation and hyper-specific, individualized boxes into which to cram ourselves. All this dividing and subdividing — where is it getting us? How is it working out?
In Jamaican patois, there’s a phrase: “I and I.” Rastas believe that Jah (God) lives in each person as the Holy Spirit. “I and I” acknowledges that presence, that never-aloneness. The phrase can also be used in place of “we” (“I and I are planting seeds,” one of a pair of gardeners might say), recognizing the oneness of all people.
In Ocho Rios, Jamaica last week I swam out to a floating, round recliner tethered to a buoy in the bay. There were a few of them in a row, each about 20 feet apart, like mini-trampoline-shaped islands. I lay down in one and watched the waves approaching at eye level.
The same wave hit each person on our respective floating discs. We bobbed up and over each one as it passed, on our separate islands. And I thought about why I’d grown increasingly confused and upset over the past couple of years: I felt our pandemic response was based, fundamentally, on a grave error.
The error of believing that we’d be healthier apart than together. That it was possible for humans to be apart for months and years and thrive. That the specter of death justified strangling life and decimating community. That if we separated ourselves hard enough and long enough, the waves would stop.
Instead, of course, the waves kept coming, the waves keep coming, and we’ve only drifted further apart, the fabric of our society now frayed and threadbare. We’ve atomized each “I.” We’re thirsty for the “and,” hungry to be hitched to another, bigger, totalizing “I.”
For as long as I can remember, whenever I see someone jogging outside, I think, “Thank you.”
I think it’s from a sense that their endorphins are, somehow, feeding the roots we share. That they’re available to me too.
When I see people spinning in anxiety, building webs of suffering in their minds, I think, “Oh no, please stop.” This is selfish of me. I do not want to suffer. Part of my tendency to try to fix everything around me can be traced here, I think. I’m sure with a little elbow grease I can scoot the Whole a few inches closer to wellbeing.
When I soak up the sun beneath a palm tree on vacation, I think, “You’re welcome. This nourishment is for all of us, this pleasure and peace.”
When I deliver food to the people on my Meals on Wheels route, I feel weirdly like I’m both giving and receiving. I think, “Thank goodness. We’re taking care of us.”
In the 24 hours before I donate blood, I picture everything I do – the yoga class, the morning meditation, the colorful lunch – being stored in my blood like sparkles. As it leaves my arm, I think about all of it being transmitted to someone who needs it, my sparkle-packed blood coursing in someone else’s veins.
In Jamaica, Bob Marley was playing everywhere. Always there in the background, over and over, the words “One love, one heart. Let’s get together and feel alright.”
It felt like a message sent straight to us in 2022 to save our minds and souls. After so much separation, so much division, fracturing, splintering, isolation, mutual wariness, distrust, condemnation, and hostility. After all that, this balm.
This reminder: One love, one heart. This invitation: Let’s get together and feel alright.
Last month, a rural community theater in northern Minnesota canceled their production of Sister Act days before it was set to open. They had cast a white woman in the Whoopi Goldberg role (evidently no people of color showed up to the auditions), and it became increasingly clear throughout the rehearsal process that that was a misstep. The role was clearly written for a non-white actor. Cast members threatened to quit. The board decided to scrap the production and issued an apology on Facebook.
Meanwhile, trans swimmer Lia Thomas is stirring national conversation and controversy by winning the division I national title in women’s college swimming. Many are questioning the fairness of someone who has gone through male puberty competing against biological women. But on the political left, the prevailing view is that Thomas is perfectly justified in competing against other women.
I’m holding the complexity of these examples gently, turning them over in my hands. I think the theater was probably right to cancel their show. I’m ambivalent about the Lia Thomas question. There’s a strong part of me that says it’s not fair. More than anything, I’m interested in which categories we have the option of transcending, and which we don’t, and why.
Marginalized groups have a strong, hard-won sense of identity. They have a specific set of lived experiences, and spaces they’ve cultivated for safety and community — an even playing field, a shared clubhouse. What happens when someone from another group wants to enter? The groovy thing to do, it seems, would be to let them in. No walls, no fences, no signs that say “Keep Out!”
I wonder if we can also acknowledge, though, that something then is lost — at least when spaces in the clubhouse are limited. When there’s x number of roles available, x number of spots on the award podium allotted to members of this category. It seems we do acknowledge that loss in our fierce protection of some categories, but pretend it’s not the case with others.
We want to keep some identities separate and sacred, and allow other boundaries to blur. I have more questions about this than answers.
This is what I love about acting: the channeling of energies that are not mine. I don’t know where they come from. But I can feel when I’m tapped in. When the top of my skull is open like a funnel, and strange humours are pouring in, moving my limbs, vibrating my vocal cords.
The sense that I’m an instrument that can be tuned to any vibration. That I can access and inhabit infinite permutations of personhood.
This isn’t all the time, of course. But the transcendent moments are thrilling when they come.
Classic, Darwinian evolutionary theory has long asserted that species only separate over time. That the tree of life is forever branching into more and more discrete twigs. But increasingly, science is revealing that species also merge.
The emerging theory of “reticulate evolution” says that life is less like a tree and more like the pattern on a python’s skin — an elaborate tangle of branchings and mergings.
Natural selection isn’t the only force at play in evolution. There’s also genetic drift, roving genes, and “introgression,” the process of genes transferring between populations.
“I think that process of splitting up and merging back together again, and getting a bit of DNA from here to there, that’s happening all the time, in all of the tree of life,” says Rasmus Nielsen, a geneticist at the University of California at Berkeley in this article in Aeon. “And it’s really changing how we’re thinking about it, that it really is a network of life, not a tree of life.”
This is also how hyphae, the branching filaments that make of the mycelium of fungus, move. They branch and branch and fuse and branch again. “One tip becomes two, becomes four, becomes eight — yet all remain connected in one mycelial network,” writes Merlin Sheldrake in Entangled Life. “Is this organism singular or plural, I find myself wondering, before I’m forced to admit that it is, somehow, improbably, both.”
“Mycelium is a living, growing, opportunistic investigation,” writes Sheldrake. “Speculation in bodily form.”
Maybe this branching and merging, this separation over here and that fusing over there, is simply the motion of life. Maybe there’s no use resisting it — the splitting or the blending.
Maybe this is how consciousness feels its way forward in the dark.
Great piece Mo. thank you
Exquisite writing, Mo. Thank you. I come to your musing having just finished reading The Overstory by Richard Powers. So much to think about. Are lines a good thing to draw? Who draws the lines? Does being connected and inclusive repel some? What I s loosely connected? It is complex. Lots of grey area.