The Infiniteness of Identity
How does our sense of Self shift when considering our interdependence?
There is an oak tree that I visit on my walks. I often pause to touch my hands to its trunk. Or I stop briefly to bow to it as I pass by. If others are around, I sometimes whisper a shy hello to the tree. It has been there presumably for a century or more - judging by its size and Coast Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia) being endemic to the area. The species certainly predates the houses and pavement in the area by millennia. This oak’s branches umbrella outward and then curve down to the ground, so that if you are standing near the trunk you are enveloped in its leafy embrace.
It is unfathomable that this oak started off as a small acorn.
But did it start there?
No, it started before the acorn. In the flowers of its ancestors. And even before that. In the sunshine and water that has graced these lands over the years. I look at it now and see “oak tree”, but the oak tree is composed of so many things. Not only its leaves, bark, branches that identify it as a tree, but the soil and all the abundant life that makes up the soil. The insects, worms, the microbes, the minerals, animal waste, decaying plant material. The oak is made up of the clouds, the wind. It is made up of it’s lineage of ancestors, including the species of tree that lived 55 million years ago from which it originally evolved. It cannot be separated from these things for without these things it would not exist. And it cannot exist without the carbon dioxide that is offered from me as I stand beneath it’s branches, breathing out. We too are connected.
Following this path of thought, it becomes naïve to think of the oak tree as an object, singular and independent. It is identifiable by its apparent form, but it's beginning and end does not truly exist. It's a big infinite ball of yarn if one tries to trace its original source.
Naming and identifying things is simply a helpful tool to organize our world. If you want to trace evolutionary history, the phylogenetic tree is a great way to do so, but it is not the full picture. While it maps out the major groups (taxa) and how they are connected via evolutionary lineages, it cannot capture the numerous organisms that lead the way to the splintering off of various taxa. Nor can it fully capture the interdependence of organisms. It is like looking at a road map. It is an organized, navigational tool for a place, but it is not a complete picture of what makes a place a place.
Cartographer, could you please include the nest in the pine tree on First Avenue and the fox den at the bottom of that canyon? Could you also map the interdependence between Mr. Garcia and his neighbor who brings him food every Wednesday?
I couldn’t possibly! I have to draw the line somewhere!
You can point to the intersection of Broadway and Grand, but not the intersection of cloud and soil. What do we include when we are identifying a thing, a person, a place? Where do we begin? Identity is not an absolute truth.
Can you see the forest for the whale? Leaves that have fallen into the rivers leach acids that travel into the oceans and support the growth of plankton which are the building blocks of the marine food chain leading back to the whale.
All things on this planet are interconnected, interdependent, mutable, unknowable. Including ourselves.
How many identities do I claim for myself? Homo sapien, writer, daughter, introvert, woman, clown, primate, American, not good at math. Are they true? Or are they simply a way to make sense of how I fit into a relative world?
I find it increasingly harder to write a bio!
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am the radish I ate today, but I am also what that radish is made of. I am bacteria. I am the sponge that lived in the oceans hundreds of millions of years ago. I am the ocean.
What a relief to know my identity is not fixed!
We are mortal and will one day die. Or will we? This form known as Ilana will die, but the air I breathe out today will continue on for millennia, and the hitchhiker seed I unknowingly carried on my clothing and deposited in the soil will live on in the form of the foxtail barley plant, and my blood that fed a mosquito as I was writing this supports a lineage of other mosquitos, and perhaps an action I made, a word I spoke, will impact some future someone, and so on I go, through time and space.
I cannot exist as an island unto myself, in life nor in death. And so, just as the form I call an oak is only narrowly described by its name and its visible form, who or what I am is infinite and inconclusive.
CONVERSATION WITH AN OAK
ME: How old are you?
OAK: The same as you?
ME: 45 years old?
OAK: You’re much older than that?
OAK: When did you begin?
ME: Don’t know.
OAK: Who are you?
ME: Don’t know.
ME: I see.
OAK: Who is this I that sees?
ME: The one who is as old as this Oak?
OAK: Yes. Happy birthday.
Today and everyday.
ME: Happy birthday.
"A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.”
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate
Trace your identity beyond the form of your being. Of what non-self elements are you comprised?
OR write your own conversation with a non-human organism.
Leave a comment below or email email@example.com I'd love to hear your reflections.
*Journaling tips can be found here.
If this tickled your fool's heart, you might also enjoy https://www.fool-hearted.com/post/the-joy-of-zero