Our Dendritical Lives

The sun is rolling into its spring and summer positions in the sky, climbing a bit higher each day toward the zenith, pouring its life-giving rays onto the Earth.  I recently read a description of this by Howard T. Odum, a systems ecologist, who says, “After the sun’s energy is captured by the green plants, it flows through chains of organisms dendritically, like blood spreading from the arteries into networks of microscopic capillaries.”  The word that caught my attention here is “dendritically.”

A dendrite is a branching figure like a tree.  It comes from the Greek word dendron that means tree. Our arteries, blood veins, and capillaries are dendritical because they branch out from our hearts.  At this time of year we can feel and almost see the sun’s energy behaving like a tree, as it spreads out from the sun and is captured by plants and grass that once again turn green.  Each day something else is green again, something else flowers, something shoots up out of the soil.  The Green Man, his head and face leafed out like a tree, is waking up from a long winter’s dream of becoming alive again, this sun-energy forcing its way through his own dendritical veins and arteries. We’ve long passed the feast of Brigid who “breathes new life into the mouth of dead winter,” and now we watch what that life brings forth.  This new breath, warm from the sun, flows through ancient energy-lines carrying that life into all the Earth’s species. The world turns green again, and colorful again.  The Green Man stretches his long body into shape.

As we watch the Earth revive from winter dormancy, we have a spontaneous urge to go outside and be part of it, much like a young toddler who can’t resist running on its little legs up to a dog or cat or even a wild animal and try to hug it.  Life wants to be part of life, to touch life in all its forms.  It wants to branch out.  So what role do we play in this season that literally “springs” upon us so quickly and surprisingly?  How do we fit into this tree-like system of life?

Ethnographer Deborah Bird Rose gives us four guidelines for this in her book Dingo Makes Us Human, her account of life among the Yarralin people in Australia.  First, we are partly responsible (“partly” because we are, after all, only a small part) for maintaining the Earth’s balance.  We can act so that the region we live in does not get out of kilter in a way that would impair its ability to give life.  Second, we must pay attention, observe, communicate with the world around us as it reveals to us its needs. Third, we are just one part of the whole, and like any one part, we cannot dominate our area or “win.” Rather we offer our activities to enhance whatever is needed to maintain balance.  Last, we are not the boss.  We are not in control because there is a life-force stronger and wiser than we are that cascades through myriad cells and organisms that branch out into areas we cannot even fathom.  So we need to work and play carefully, realizing that what we know is so small and yet what we do can spiral out of control and have such a great impact.

Whatever we do has repercussions beyond our knowing.  Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, soils, oceans, and water courses have balanced themselves over eons of time to create a complex and delicate environment that can bring forth and sustain life.  We will never know all the interconnections and dendrites.  But it is a privilege that we are here.

An old prayer said by fishermen (some say it is from Brittany, others from Ireland) goes: “Oh God, be kind to me, your sea is so great and my boat is so small.”  The fishermen of ancient times knew this keenly in their small fragile boats.  But even present-day sailors, equipped with the latest technology, must also know this.  We are reminded of this fundamental truth about our life on this planet as we approach the night of April 14-15 this year, the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, a boat thought to be unsinkable when it was built.

However we meditate on this season of new life, we are reminded of a perennial truth found in this short prayer.  Our “boat,” our life itself, is afloat on a torrent of energy, branching out and coursing through realms of existence that we can barely know or understand.  The Earth may feel solid and eternal to us who are so small, but in many ways it is really a fragile place where the sun’s rays collect and create the cycles of life which are interconnected and inter-branched dendritically.

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