Certain intermittent experiences in life have the redemptive power of making us realize how extraordinary all this is. It’s extraordinary that the universe exists. It’s extraordinary that we’re in it. It’s extraordinary that it extends infinitely in all directions from our particular perspective and that each grain of it is not even a grain but a universe of its own teeming with miracle and possibility. To reduce the extraordinary nature of life to routine is a sin. And a sin is something that makes you unhappy.

It’s fortunate that these experiences are intermittent, because if they were constant we wouldn’t be able to get the grass mowed or just generally appreciate the human experience in all its joy and horror. Maybe to some transcendental consciousness the extraordinary is the ordinary, but for us, our lower position on the food chain is a gift, and those rare gleams when we see the ordinary as extraordinary what make life worth living.

These moments are often inspired by an encounter with another human being, whether in person or via his or her influence, but can be sparked by anything, a return to the sylvan Wye perhaps, and grant, or require, an escape from ego and a surrender of our rutted mindset. That may be reward enough, and maybe isn’t even distinct from recognizing the extraordinary.

I recommend Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees as something that did the trick for me. Wohlleben is a German forester who like any naturalist is gifted with uncommon powers of observation, and for whom walking into a forest is like hanging out with his family. The book is scientific but intended for a lay audience, discursive and informal. Drawing on his own observations and recent research he portrays the forest as a community, the individual trees engaged in darwinian competition, but able to communicate with and nourish each other and fight off threats. They can feel pain, thirst, and can aspire and fear. He takes you underground, he takes you into the canopy, he explains trees’ symbiotic/competitive life with fungi, their interaction with insects, birds, and other creatures, and their relationship with the landscape they half live in, half create.

Naturally I was drawn to this book because I have always felt a deep admiration and awe for trees. I guess you would have to call it love—innate, involuntary, not unlike what I feel for dogs. There is something regal about trees, something the very antithesis of petty and hasty. They are impossibly beautiful creatures who experience time in a different way than we do, slow by our measure and dignified, which is no small part of their majesty. The butchers who come through to cut them away from power lines horrify me, and seeing any tree cut down gives me pain.

Wohlleben keeps it all scientific enough, but by the end of the book he has confirmed my lifelong intuition of sentience and emotion in these august beings. Those invested in an unnegotiable worldview, in this case the mechanistic, reject any such idea. Trees don’t “talk”—they send electrical impulses through their roots. They aren’t “social beings”—they’ve only evolved certain mechanisms. They don’t “warn” their neighbors—they release chemicals.

Okay. But consider the outsider considering us—explaining every mechanism, every chemical reaction, every electrical exchange, but understanding nothing about the experience of being a human being. They call this the “hard problem of consciousness.” The fact that it’s a “problem” betrays the prejudice built into the inquiry itself. It’s simply that we haven’t come up with a mechanistic metaphor for it yet. And won’t have anything but a metaphor when we do.

The essence of the universe is its mystery, our own essence the drive to absorb and share it. We need that mystery as much as food and water; the interaction of our mind with the cosmos is the food of the soul, and extraordinary. If something thought all this up, you’ve got to admire how it knew exactly what to leave out when it made us.

Now for The Inner Life of Animals.

January 28, 2019

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