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What does it mean to be one with the community of life? What are some of the ways that we ignore or disrupt the community of life? Some “golden oldies” among us may remember the American folksong, popular in the anti-Vietnam protests of the 60’s, “Where have all the flowers gone?...When will we ever learn?”

That song has come back to me many times, but now with an even broader context and more urgent message. Now, in the midst of the largest species’ extinction in 65 million years, we might sing “Where have all the species gone,” or “Where has pure, sparkling-clear water gone,” or “Where have the magnificent rainforests, the glaciers, the Polynesian islands gone...?” We could make a long litany of new lyric verses.

When we confront the consequences of global climate change together with increasing militarization and nuclear proliferation on the planet, we must realize that Earth itself is giving us increasingly drastic cues that we humans need to make some big changes. We are trashing this magnificent planet.

We have reason to take a long, probing look at what can only be seen as our failure to understand what it means to be a responsible human being. But we can choose to change.

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When will we learn? What cues are we missing? Other life forms existed before we did. They might survive the havoc we create, since they do not depend upon us. We, on the other hand, need them to sustain our lives. Think of it: without trees and green growing things we cannot breathe or eat; without drinkable water we cannot live. We humans can’t separate ourselves from the rest of what we call “nature” because we cannot exist apart from the continual sustenance we receive from it. As one of the latest species to appear in the aeons-long trajectory of Earth’s evolution, we carry that whole history within our bodies, and even in our psyches.

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We are all one community of life, and every species has a role to play to enhance the common good. But we humans have to choose our role and how to fulfill it. Who do we think we are?

One of my first really conscious experiences of “community of life” happened in a very simple way. I had, for the first time, some peonies growing in front of my house. When they came to bud, I was very upset to see ants swarming over the tightly closed surfaces. I was horrified! I imagined that the ants were going to eat up the flowers before they had a chance to bloom. When I shared my anxiety with friends, they were, predictably, amused.

As you probably know, ants are essential to the blossoming of peonies, eating off the sticky substance covering the bud so that the flower can open. Far from being destructive, the ants were playing a crucial role in the life cycle of the peonies.

I was witnessing a very fundamental pattern of cooperation in nature. But I had immediately interpreted what I saw through the filter of competition rather than seeing it as it is – a pattern of mutuality, of exchange. I began to notice how Earth’s creatures live in relationship with their environmental companions, each one in its niche, contributing its own gift, each one receiving the gift of the others.

Several species may live in the same tree, but one will make its home inside the bark, one will nest in the branches.

One bird has a sharp beak to open the nut but leaves a lot of leftovers; and sure enough, a different species will be on site to eat them up! One will get its food in the day time, another will forage about in the night.

The more I set myself to notice, the more I saw. Cow droppings would quickly attract dung beetles, who would set to work on its decomposition – getting a good meal for themselves, and preparing the offal to enrich the soil.

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I read about marine species who have “service stations” where they clean up (actually provide dental hygiene) and “groom” other species. A member of one species – say, a dog or an ancient tortoise – may take care of – even nurse – a member of another species. I was finding cooperation everywhere! Other-than-human species seem to be able to live cooperatively together so that everyone can survive and even thrive. Why can’t we?

Sr. Elaine Prevallet, SL

Question for Reflection:

How do I assess my sense of “need” in relation to the whole community of life? Where do I ground my most fundamental sense of trust?