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The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth

A View by Richard Lang


When my observer moves away from my world-encircling human body (the body of Humanity) she finds I am inextricably interwoven with the rest of life. There is no absolute boundary separating me from other species. Upon them I depend. Taking this into account, she concludes there is really only one being that is alive here and that being is the web of all species. At this range my identity as Humanity gives way to my identity as Life.

When viewed from high in the stratosphere I appear as the biosphere, a thin organic layer sandwiched between the inorganic atmospheric and geological layers of the planet. I am a hollow shell at my thickest no more than a thousandth part of my 8,000 mile diameter. A living membrane I burrow into the earth, swim in the seas, fly through the air, crawl, walk and run on the land. I was born as a primitive cell about 3.5 billion years ago in the liquids of the cooling planet and, successfully adapting to and evolving with its changing conditions, am now an infinitely complex system of interdependent species. My latest estimates are that I comprise about 12 million species with about 70 going extinct every day. The human species is one branch on this vast, ancient tree which I am. These human hands with which I type this description of myself belong both to myself as a person and to myself as Life.

Expanding Into All Life

Looking out from my centre I am first of all capacity for my (headless) body, then capacity for other people, and then, beyond the human layer, capacity for other species - for animals, insects, birds, fish, reptiles and plants. Looking at a kitten, I am capacity for her. I include in my spacious absence this vulnerable limb on the immense tree of life - this vulnerable limb of my own body. I am this kitten.

The absence of an absolute boundary between myself and the rest of Life reveals itself temporally as well as spatially. Tracing the origins of my life back in time, back through my human forebears and beyond, I find myself progressively re-united with more and more creatures. There is no date finally separating me from any other form of Life. The many branches of Life alive today are one in the ancient trunk. Deep in the past I and the worm in my garden have a common ancestor. Put another way, I and the worm are different limbs of that one forebear, that one original cell who is still alive now in both of us. And long after I as Humanity have died away I will still be alive in some form of worm, I imagine.

At the same time, investigating the deeper levels of mind, psychologists report mental strata we share with all of the living. Scratch the surface and we are all animals. At this level, whether I look at myself from outside or inside, in the past, present or future, I am Life and Life is one.

My approaching observer notes that Life is made of many species, that the human species is made of many people, and that this person is made of many cells. Each level of my being is distinct from the others, yet each becomes the others - I am an indivisible, hierarchically organized, living system.

Looking even further, beyond Life (beyond the biosphere), I find I am capacity for the other 'spheres' - for the atmosphere above and the geosphere below.

Self-Conscious Biosphere

It is by studying my lifeless neighbours, by contrasting myself with them and seeing myself from their point of view that I come to appreciate my vitality as Life. Just as I find out who I am as a person in human society, and who I am as a species in the company of other species, so I find out who I am as Life in the company of my inorganic neighbours. Though I may think I study the atmosphere above and the rocks below as a human being, really my eyes and mind are Life's.

Marvelling at the 'wonders of instinct', we ask (for instance) how a spider, with so little brain and no teaching, can build so perfect a web. The answer is already in our heads. The works of that still humbler creature - the brainless brain-cell - are still more marvellous, and their secret is that the cell is not brainless: the whole brain is the brain of each of its cells. Similarly the real brains of an organism are those of its species, and of its genus, and ultimately of Life itself. In the end, my brains include the spider's, as the spider's include mine. Nor can I spare any of them. If the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field and the fish of the sea do not draw me to the Kingdom, I shall never arrive, for they are my vital completion there. The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth, Douglas Harding.

Go to My Planetary Identity - Earth

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