“In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
Today my wife was at the dentists and she and the technician tumbled into a conversation about birds, then India; the woman was startled to hear my wife describing the amazing birds of India. “They have birds?” she puzzled, she had never thought of India having birds, she had only thought of millions of people and filth.
Despite the vast reach of the internet and media, social and otherwise, we have become endlessly disconnected from the natural world, and some would blame the plethora of digital opportunities. I’m less convinced. Others have written extensively about this, and I’m not compelled to repeat their words, or add my two cents, but there is a disconnect that I find bewildering and alarming. Digital technologies may amplify it, but did not birth it. That disconnect is also not the domain of urban Americans or Europeans, my recent travels in Cameroon, a primarily agricultural society with considerable active hunter-gather connections, illustrated that. I wonder does it run species deep?
Among my various connections to the world around me is birdwatching. Not bird-spotting (twitching for some), but birdwatching, and listening, and observing, and pondering, and reflecting, and finally re-watching. On great ape trips in Africa and Indo-Malaysia it is all I can do to not wander off the great ape path and follow some bird’s voice to its feathered conclusion. Part of my passion for them is they are found in every country and on every continent of this planet, including India. Birds are therefore, a daily reminder to me of my connections. They connect me. I say they remind me and they connect me because, I have to be reminded and I have to be connected.
There has always been the assumption that we have become disconnected, as if an ancient great ape umbilical cord was cut when we fell out of that early tree of primates. But what if we jumped? What if we purposefully redirected because we were disconnected? What if connecting naturally isn’t us, in Beston’s words, “we… never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations [sic]…”
And perhaps therein lies the disconnect.
Other nations are not us. Their destruction can come at little or limited emotional cost to us. Because when they are gone we can rebuild them in our likeness. Then, conveniently, no longer are they other nations, foreign and problematic.
That idea is full of peril I realize, especially for someone like me who does work on a daily basis to connect, so passionately loves the natural world. It opens the door for those who would like to deny nature a place in our humanity. I love watching, listening, observing, pondering, and reflecting in it, but I don’t always feel at home. I don’t always feel comfortable, at some magical oneness with it all. Yes, there are definitely times when I feel much more at home beneath the tree we jumped from—with a nice bottle of red wine, hunk of cheese and fresh baguette—than I would in the tree. But my point is we need the tree. And we need to understand that we need the tree. It’s not simply we like the tree or want the tree. We need—as in cannot live without—the tree. That is the disconnect we cannot afford.
I’m beginning to realize working on this great ape project is about understanding this disconnect. Coming to grips with it. Being patient with it. Seeing it everywhere, on every scale. I am also seeing how intrinsic it is to the nature of my great ape. What if that disconnect is in fact written into our DNA? It’s commonly referenced how much deoxyribonucleic acid we share with the other four great apes, but what’s encoded in the bits we don’t? Is that where disconnect resides? Is that the land of an—other nation? Are there at least a few proteins that makes us strain at the idea that cutting down all Earth’s rainforest is a bad thing? Is there some chain of amino acids that just won’t let us fully comprehend we live on a round planet and what ever we do over there will eventually reach us over here,… someday?
Crisscrossing the tropics, to where the other four great apes share the planet, I have returned again and again to this notion that we, human apes, cannot comprehend the non-linear influence of simultaneous radial pressures. That’s where this whole disconnect takes hold. That’s why climate change, much less climate chaos, doesn’t strike the alarm, and immediate, all-nations-on-deck, take-action terror that it should. We have no reference point for non-linear influenced simultaneous radial pressures. Hell, we don’t even comprehend plate tectonics or we wouldn’t build skyscrapers in earthquake zones. So how are we to wrap our heads around deforestation on an island on one side of the planet, shifting carbon sequestration, or methane outputs from natural gas extraction, while warming atmospherics stall jet streams into exaggerated U-loops that push temperatures 20 degrees Fahrenheit above or below “normal” for weeks on end — and what’s more, they are all doing it simultaneously, driving a dozen other factors. This isn’t linear, this isn’t simply… stop dumping DDT on the planet and things will return to health in a decade.
DNA is small. Proteins are smaller. Amino acids are smaller yet. But it doesn’t take much, just enough. Just enough to make you want to jump out of a tree. Once you jump you are disconnected, and forever have to be reminded of the tree we need.
Notes & Sources
Quote ― Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod
2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo