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Remembering We Are Big
by -- April 22nd, 2012

Thoughts on Treevival and astral dust.

In a meditative video about the origins of the universe, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that he feels “big” when he reflects that he is made from the same atomic stardust that exploded to form our universe and the building blocks of all life in our solar system.

Richard Garriott, one of the first private citizens to travel in space, explains that seeing the planet from a space shuttle made him “know the true scale of the Earth by direction observation.” As he watched large scale patterns of weather and erosion and tectonic plate movement, he realized the vastness of humanity’s impact on the planet and felt an entirely new sense of environmentalism.

Last weekend, I watched a documentary short called Salt that was screened in Durham’s Central Park as part of the Full Frame Documentary Festival. The filmmaker’s tremendous sense of isolation as he bikes across the salt flats of Lake Eyre, documented with beautiful time lapse photography, is interrupted only as he shares mundane daily updates with his wife via satellite phone.

Like a lot of kids, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. I remember how proudly I measured the relative planetary distances to stick glow-in-the-dark planets on my walls, the entirety of the universe contained within my own little bedroom. After Salt ended, I lay back and looked up at the stars. It was clear in Durham and Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter were all visible that night. I tried to think about whether the stars made me feel big or small, but mostly I wondered how long it had been since I last stopped to look up at the night sky.

The summer I was 14, I was charged with navigating my team’s boat on an overnight sailing race. Bumping my head on the ceiling of the ship’s tiny cabin, doing trigonometry and using parallel rulers on nautical maps, I grumbled about the race’s rules forbidding the use of handheld GPS for navigation. “Sailors used to navigate using just the stars,” our adult chaperone pointed out. “One day soon enough you’ll be sick of staring at computer screens all day.” Last fall, the American PUMA team lost its entire mast during a transatlantic leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, but managed to navigate more than 700 nautical miles to one of the most remote archipelagos in the South Atlantic.

Hank Lentfer’s Moral Ground essay “Get Dirty, Get Dizzy” questions whether activists’ concern for saving the planet oftentimes overshadows our sense of wonder at the Earth’s gifts. I know more than a few scientists so obsessed with the trappings and process of science – the neat rows of test tubes, the intentionally impenetrable journal articles, the maniacal drive to replicate experiments – that they seem to have forgotten all appreciation for the incredible complexity of life and the natural systems of the universe.

If we are all forged from the same stardust, if the universe is in each of us, then part of this perplexing complexity is that we are all more intensely connected than we even understand. Remembering our connectedness implies a new sense of urgency when tiny island nations like Kiribati plead with the developed world to save the slice of the planet that has contained their entire history.

As I walked through a campus café on Monday afternoon, green leaves in hand, I interrupted strangers who were studying for exams, writing papers, and reading papers to ask if they wanted to affirm their moral obligation to the planet. I was sheepish and reluctant to bother people busy at work, rationalizing that I would be annoyed if a stranger approached me to talk about a class project. One woman stopped me as I described Treevival, interjecting that she herself had cut down the cedar Treevival tree as part of a chainsaw forestry skills class. This chance encounter reminded me that our lives are all intertwined in more ways than we can begin to fathom. In an instant, I was transported back to a fundamental question that came up in the course of planning the project – was the point supposed to be the tree itself or the discussion it would generate?

For me, an important part of the Treevival Project is remembering that our moral obligations to the planet have implications for other people, as well. There’s a certain narrowness of vision fostered by a professional education in environmental management, perhaps spawned by the notion that we become masters of increasingly small and distinct spheres of knowledge. The Treevival Project is an exhortation to instead consider the breadth of our obligation to the planet, to spend long enough away from focusing the microscope to consider how big we all are.

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