A Walk in the Woods

The darker green of a middle-aged summer surrounds me as I walk deep in the woods. It smells like moist dirt. It is silent except for the wind rattling through the trees, the birds squawking to one another, and the insects chattering to themselves. Each step takes me closer to the middle of nowhere as my sneakers sink slightly into the rich earth. I am alone.

I am very alone. Not only am I without a companion, but I am alone deep inside. I feel like I am not connected to anything, like an island, which touches nothing, which is a part of nothing else. I have no reason for being here, no purpose to fulfill, no task to accomplish. I am a mote of dust as I drift onto a cold gray sitting-rock. I come from nothing and I am swiftly becoming nothing at all.

At my feet is a scattering of rocks. One is sharp and pointed, but uneven on the sides. An arrowhead, perhaps? Maybe an Indian sat here and chipped this rock to make an arrowhead, but failing in symmetry cast it aside. What would his world have looked like two hundred years ago? Probably exactly the same. There’s a mountain in the distance. The Indians believed that the mountains were alive and that there were gods in them. Others have believed that there were gods in the trees, or in the earth, in that raven, or in the sky. Hey! I guess if I believed in all the religions I’d be surrounded by gods. But I feel no gods at all. None inside me, beside me, or above me. No gods, no spirits, no angels, no grandfathers. All I feel is alone.

If life is more than a slab of meat on a stone then show me! Show me a god, or an angel, or a spirit, or even a ghost. This “have faith” business that they sell in church is about as dumb as saying that tapping this stick against a rock keeps elephants away (See? It works! Do you see any elephants?)

“OUCH!” Something bit me on the ankle! Damn! It’s a stupid ant. I squashed it with my finger. Served it right for biting me. I looked down at the ground and there were lots of ants. I put my heel down and killed a few hundred more just for good measure… teach them to bite me. I felt like a Nazi killing a hundred townspeople to repay one small indiscretion. The whole town would mourn as their sons and mothers were executed. Did the ants care? I looked down at the ground. They didn’t seem to. Uncountable numbers of ants were milling around doing whatever they thought they were supposed to be doing. They didn’t appear to be plotting the overthrow of the merciless furher on the rock above. Actually, I don’t believe there’s enough in an ant to do any real “thinking.” I read somewhere that they just follow impulses that are genetically programmed in at birth. They just do what they do because that’s the way they’re wired.

I looked more closely at the ants. There was actually a whole colony of them with little anthills throughout the area that must have measured at least several yards. I had stepped on a few of the holes as I was coming to sit on the rock. Already, small swarms of ants were working to restore the openings I had closed. Elsewhere, groups of ants were carrying food into the colony. Near one of my footprints, ants were moving what must have been little ant-eggs out of the way. As I watched, I realized that I was not looking at a million individuals, I was looking at one large organism made up of a million little ant-parts. This organism, this ant colony, can think, too. It will move to higher ground if the area begins to flood or to richer land if the food supply disappears. It has outstanding reproductive capabilities. It defends itself and reacts intelligently to its environment. But how can an intelligent organism be made up of unthinking dumb ants? What’s doing the thinking? Which ant decides to move to higher ground?

How to build a fish. I remember a grade school science teacher describing the beginning of life. According to Mr. Reid, living single cells, like amoebae were floating around in the primordial ocean. Occasionally they would meet and stick to one another, although no cell could be completely surrounded by other cells, as it would die from lack of seawater. The more they stuck together the bigger they got, and the more likely they were to survive. The ideal shape was a group of cells in a bag-like configuration. Currents and waves would move the bag and create a “pumping” action so the water inside would be pumped out and replaced with fresh seawater. Seaweed and other living things would get stuck inside the “bag” part, and decompose making the water inside the bag richer and full of nutrients. How about thicker walls filled with little holes for seawater… (It’s a sponge!) Maybe different ends for food going in and out would work well. How about self-pumping instead of depending on currents? We’ve got millions of years to work with and the best ideas survive… and eventually I guess we get a fish.

If we can bring the seawater-stuff with us, maybe we can get out of the ocean and build high-rise, beachfront condominiums.

Each of the cells in my body is an individual living thing. Under the right conditions it could live without me. Every cell in my skin, my heart, and my brain is alive, individual, and potentially independent… just like an ant. But which of my cells know my name?

Is the ant colony a “god” to the ants? Am I the “god” of each of my cells? What might I say to my devoted, loving cells… my children? “I love you. I love every single one of you. I will protect you and care for you.” “I am your reason for living, in me you will find purpose and meaning.” “Love your neighbor. You are all a part of me.” “Don’t try to understand me. None of you can know my name.” “Don’t look for me, all you can see if the part of me that you are.” “Be fruitful and multiply”

Every breath we take is a prayer.

How would I want my cells to honor me? “I don’t need your devotion. I don’t need you to do things for me. Just be, and follow your inner voices for that is my voice speaking to you. Simply by living you worship me.” “Stay healthy. Your body is a temple.”

And if a vociferous cell were crying at the senseless loss of a million cells that were accidentally scraped off against a rock, what would I say to him?

So where is this thing called “me”? It doesn’t live in any of my cells. A cell lives no more than 11 years, which means that every one of my cells if replaced and reincarnated. Yet I remain unchanged. I remember more than 11 years. So “I” am made of my cells but I am not my cells. “Me”, then, is the connection between my cells. A connection that still exists if one cell is replaced by another cell. So when two or more lower-order beings interact, a higher order being is created. When two people interact, a “relationship” is created, or a family is created. When many people interact, a group, community, or society is created… each creation made of but to some degree, independent from its parts. Of course if a major portion of a community is wiped out, it is likely that the community will undergo significant change and possibly even die. But for the most part, when cells, or ants, or society members leave and are replaced the whole changes only slightly, if at all.

It’s called Synergy. That’s when the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts, where something is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, where 2 and 2 make 5. This synergy must be what the ancients called ‘God’… the spirit of things, the connection between us all, the purpose of which we are all a part but can never understand.

I looked up and looked around. Things looked a little different. Instead of millions of crawly ants everywhere, I saw a being sprawled out in front of me with living tendrils venturing out to smell and taste, perhaps to bite the surrounding area. The trees and bushes that seemed to always be in the way were the cells of a being called forest. Forest is a huge, beautiful being which spreads out, basks in the sun, and exhales fresh air. The forest protects the colony; the colony loosens the soil… Gods within Gods within Gods. Suddenly, I wasn’t so alone.