A Lesson From the Fireflies

Biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber takes a walk on a spring night—and experiences the interconnected relationships of nature.

“The principles made apparent by biological research show us that life is, at nearly every level, a collective concern.”

Photo by higrace photo/Getty Images.

Anyone who believes that life is a battlefield full of individual warriors should go out into the meadows on a spring night. There, you can learn that the biosphere does not spawn cutoff, clearly differentiated individuals who compete against one another—assuming you find such a meadow; that is, now that some farmers have started to sow a single, standardized species of grass.

In my little Italian village, the narrow streets climb into the hills where the meadows are still allowed to grow wild in the springtime.

Within two or three weeks, the stalks swell into a multitude of meadow-grasses and blossoms as tall as my waist, fragrant and enveloping. I think then: It might have been this way once, when the plenitude of existence could spread everywhere and it seemed unavoidable that every corner of this biosphere would fill to the brim with life. When it was only natural to think of this cosmos as living, as enlivened at its deepest core, and not as an optimized assemblage of dead matter. If you want to understand the extent to which your own existence results from the collective work of diverse organisms, you must go outside on nights such as this, when the moonlight on the diaphanous hillsides makes them seem almost translucent and fireflies tumble through the gloaming like tiny stars gone astray. Yes, it is still out there, even in Europe, if you go looking for it.

Such an experience of the harmony between a landscape and its life-forms is probably not the result of objective analysis. But this is precisely the point: If you let the calyxes and grasses slide through your hands amid the firefly flurries, celebrating the coming summer, you don’t just perceive a multitude of other beings—the hundred or so species of plants and countless insects that make up the meadow’s ecosystem. You also experience yourself as a part of this scene. And this is probably the most powerful effect of experiences in the natural world. When you immerse yourself in the natural world, you wander a little through the landscape of your soul.

For a long time now, such experiences have been considered not very reliable, certainly unscientific, and, if valid at all, deeply steeped in that pleasant state of mind known to us from fairy tales, novels, and poems. The moonlit night, for sure. Eichendorff! Is this supposedly where “the sky had silently kissed the earth”? And yet, in the interplay of the meadow’s plants, insects, and microorganisms, and in the night wanderer’s experience of this interplay and of his partaking in it, those familiar with recent biological research cannot fail to see a clearly tangible example of the principles upon which the world of life-forms is based. Seen in this light, the night wanderer’s sense of belonging, of deep investment, is not a fallacy, but stands at the center of a realistic experience of what is actually meant by aliveness. Not theoretically, but practically, experienced from inside of a living being, which is what we are.

The principles made apparent by biological research show us that life is, at nearly every level, a collective concern, a shared enterprise under-taken by a wide variety of beings that arrive at a stable, functional, and thereby beautiful ecosystem by somehow putting up with one another and reaching agreements. Rivalry, competition, and selection in the Darwinian sense definitely play a role, but this is not the merciless final word; it is simply one force among many that living systems use to create and form themselves out of a multiplicity of participants. “Symbiosis” is the term often used for this cooperative process. But “symbiosis” has an overly pleasant ring to it that suppresses the fact that an ecosystem’s success produces not only the happiness of brotherhood but also the horrors of annihilation. Eating others and being eaten (which lies ahead for all of us) figure into the same living fabric, as processes necessary to maintaining the stability of the whole and allowing it to experience itself.

For that reason, it would be better to say that biologists understand that life is a phenomenon of absolute communality. Flourishing in a relationship of mutual benefit is as much a part of this as lustily consuming another in order to guarantee one’s own flourishing. The most astonishing thing about a meadow is not only the fact that the plants growing there create niches and a mutually beneficial micro-climate, but also that the stalks of those same plants have to be grazed in order for the meadow to remain a meadow. Their leaves and buds must be shredded by the mandibles of countless insects, to be crushed by rabbits, deer, and cows, so that they might perennially reemerge, variegated and placid.

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The biosphere is full of such transformations. It is the continual product of them. There is no being, no life circumstance that does not result from contact, penetration, and conversion. The cells of our bodies result from “endosymbiosis,” from the contact between two different types of bacterial cells in which one of the cell types encloses the other. Only by this transformation into the body part of another could the enclosed bacteria further evolve into the organs necessary for the life of the enclosing cell. By infecting us throughout the course of our phylogeny, a multitude of viruses have infiltrated our genetic material with their DNA. The function of that DNA has transformed within our genetic matter such that it has become an indispensable part of our bodily processes. The living world is a constant conversion of one thing into another, leading to inexorable new growth.

In its incessantly renewing plenitude of life, the biosphere is no more “truthfully ‘symbiotic’” than it is “fundamentally ‘competitive.’” There is only one immutable truth: No being is purely individual; nothing comprises only itself. Everything is composed of foreign cells, foreign symbionts, foreign thoughts. This makes each life-form less like an individual warrior and more like a tiny universe, tumbling extravagantly through life like the fireflies orbiting one in the night. Being alive means participating in permanent community and continually reinventing oneself as part of an immeasurable network of relationships. This life network is knotted to all individuals. But just a single pull, a single slipup, is enough to loosen the ties.

If you walk through the evening meadow you experience all of this in a mysterious manner. Relief washes over you, because all at once your own struggle for life, the demand to somehow get yourself through the days, is poignantly and reassuringly echoed back to you. The burden is carried by an aliveness that vibrates everywhere, elevated above such troubles for the span of a springtime evening. If you hear the quiet rustle of the wind in the grass, you recall, deep within your body, that you are not a solid, constant individual. The grass seeds, scattered carelessly by the gentle breeze, pivot through the night like cells through the chamber of the self—the body’s dance of atoms, chaperoned by foreign microbes, amoeba, viruses, fungi.

This excerpt is adapted from Andreas Weber’s book Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher www.chelseagreen.com

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