An Identity Hitched to Everything

A tree flourishing on a rock in the Adirondacks
A tree flourishing on a rock in the Adirondacks

“The 19th-century conservationist John Muir [said] ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’ For ecologists, no less than for poets or Buddhists, it is the fundamental rule, whether you call it connectedness, inseparability or, in the language of science, food webs, trophic levels, and community interactions. . . .

Ecology was traditionally defined as the study of the interrelations between organisms and their environments, which is still somewhat dualistic. Significantly, ecologists now modify this definition to emphasise the fundamental identity of subject and surroundings. We cannot separate the bison from the prairie or the spotted owl from its coniferous forest. Since any such distinction is arbitrary, the ecologist studies the bison-prairie, owl-forest unit. Food webs, such as those connecting mouse, acorn and gipsy moth, are not mere descriptions of who-eats-whom, but outlines of their very being. The Buddhist suggestion that an organism’s skin does not separate it from its environment but, rather, joins the two, could just as well have come from a ‘master’ of physiological ecology.”

–David Barash, “Only Connect” on Aeon