“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it is hitched to everything else in the universe.”John Muir
In 1911, John Muir, naturalist and conservationist, proposed that the world we live in is a complex network of interdependence in which everything is somehow connected and that nothing stands alone, independent.
Scientific researchers have spent the last hundred-plus years confirming Muir’s prescient observation. Everything — every star and planet, every plant and animal, every human being — are all part of an intricately balanced web of being. Nothing can touch the web that doesn’t vibrate the whole thing.
The red knot is a perfect case in point. This amazing bird travels the length of the globe from south to north and back again every year in its annual migration from Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America to the northern most regions of the Arctic, a round trip journey of nearly 19,000 miles.
The red knot population has very particular stopping points along the way where flocks of thousands at a time will feed on shore life — mussels, clams and especially on the protein-rich eggs of horseshoe crabs. These feasting birds are capable of eating double their weight in order to power them on their journey, sometimes flying as much as seven days at a time without stopping to rest or eat.
But, the red knot has been on the endangered species list, having suffered an 80% decline in the recent decade. Why? Well, there may be multiple factors, but researchers are sure of one. In Delaware Bay, New Jersey, local fishermen discovered that horseshoe crabs made great bait, and suddenly there was a mad rush on harvesting the crabs. The overharvesting of these crabs dramatically diminished the availability of their eggs for the surf-feeding red knots. Without this expected nourishment, the red knots no longer had the fuel to finish their migration and many died along their journey north.
Thanks to the efforts of conservationists who fought for limits on horseshoe crab harvesting, the red knots are beginning to thrive again. Muir was right. Everything “is hitched to everything else in the universe,” even horseshoe crabs and red knots. The fate of the unremarkable horseshoe crabs determines the fate of the magnificent red knots.
What is true of crabs and birds is also true of human beings. I am reminded of the prophetic words spoken by Baptist pastor and pillar in the U.S. civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered a passionate Christmas Eve sermon, speaking out against the war in Vietnam.
“Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. No individual can live alone. No nation can live alone. And as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. The judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers, or we are all going to perish together as fools. … It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.“
What Muir and King are both inviting us to recognize is the underlying and inherent interrelationship of all things and the urgency of caring about and caring for our neighbor — even if the neighbor is another “species.”
The interconnectedness woven into the fabric of the universe does not allow for anything or anyone to stand alone. Sooner or later, for better or for worse, we all stand together. What affects me for good or ill, will eventually affect you. Suffering will spread like a pandemic when the vulnerable are abandoned in their need and the powerful are anchored in their indifference.
On the other hand, a sustainable community of well-being will emerge when the flourishing of each is the concern of all, when the opportunities for one become the opportunities for all.
Maybe Jesus had it right when he implored that, at all costs, we should “love our neighbors as ourselves.”
Maybe in this great universal symbiosis that we call life, it is the best way, the only way, to live whole, humane and happy lives.