Witness: Random Observations Noted This Year

(i) I have a glass tumbler with a six-inch crack in it, running across the bottom of the cup and up the side. The cup is still in use. No water has yet leaked out. The crack is a gap, and that gap must have some thickness or I would not be able to see it. But the viscosity of water is such that the water in the cup is able to bridge this distance, holding itself together in spite of the gap. What does this reveal about the world and our stewardship of it? Not all our failings are fatal; physics and nature gloss over some of our inability to contain things.

(ii) One of the books I’ve loved this year is The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. The book describes some of what recent research has learned about trees—namely, that more of their growth is in their roots than in their branches; that their roots are sensing organs capable of searching and feeling; that trees share nourishment with one another through interconnected roots; and that trees communicate not just through their roots but through an underground fungus that flourishes widely and “networks” distant roots together.

Where all of this leaves me: I now regard trees differently, because their lives are playing out in a different place than I thought. We humans hide the parts of our bodies that digest sustenance and produce energy, while we display and live through the parts of ourselves that communicate, feel, and search. Apply this same understanding to trees: It means trees live their lives and express their identities beneath the ground. The parts of trees we see are not the primary parts of their experience, but instead just their bodies, their energy-producing organs. We are looking at the trees’ backsides.

(iii) I have been running along the same stretch of the same bike path for several years now. You would think this means I witness the same recurring natural development again and again as the years pass, but I do not. In some years, the wild grasses with thistles predominate, and in some years it is the stalks that have blades that grow most instead. Some years the shade holds cool pockets and in some years the summer heat burns through. Some years I smell mushrooms and some years I do not. Some years I see bunnies in abundance, some years provide more than my share of snake sightings, and this year was one in which chipmunks flourished. 

Every year, some different element of the ecosystem wins the upper hand. Seasons are not as seasonal as we think.

(iv) In the garden behind my house, this was a great year for leafy greens. Romaine, mesclun, and spinach, plus kale to a lesser extent: Many salads came from the produce of our tiny backyard plot.

Being dramatic, I want to credit a cat. A neighborhood cat adopted our property this year as part of his patrolled domain. He would lounge on our porch. The remains of a rabbit made clear what else he did. I think the cat scaring other animals away kept safe our garden’s greens.

Maybe. It’s also true the weather this year was good for those greens. And we had built up great compost this year. And little plots remember past plantings, which arise like wistfulness, coloring in the current crop. And the pandemic kept us close, better able to tend the garden with consistency.

When there is failure, or loss or suffering, what happened is often apparent. The cause is all too plain.

But when there is life, or flourishing, the search for causes reveals more and more. The success of life is synergy or harmony—the tributaries summing to a river, the causes that cheer it all rising to a roar.