It’s awfully rainy outside. The sky is a dark frothy gray, and everyone who comes into the building is wearing a shiny coat that glistens with fat raindrops and their hair is matted down on top with rainwater. I stupidly wore these dumb black flats today and my feet are soaked through, still, but the rain makes for a comforting atmosphere in here (everybody holding mugs of tea and flipping through colorful books and typing away on clickety keyboards) and of course it will just turn our world greener.
Basic ecology lesson: every living thing is caught up in different relationships with other living things. These are called ‘symbiotic’ relationships. (‘Sym’ is together and ‘bio’ is life.) A lot of these relationships are good for one party and bad for the other; for example, the relationship a wolf has with a moose (predation), or the relationship a tick has with a deer (parasitism). Some of them are good for one party and don’t affect the other at all, which is called commensalism, and includes the relationship that old man’s beard lichen has with the branches of spruce trees. Some of these relationships are actually bad for both parties involved, as in competition, where two parties compete for food, space, water, sunlight, mates, or any of the other things that we need to live. And some of these relationships, called mutualisms, are good for both parties, and those are my favorites.
I do a lot of education programs centered around mutualistic relationships. I talk about yuccas and their slender, white moths; the yucca the only place the moth can lay their tiny eggs, and totally dependent on the moth for its pollination, the fate of both species hanging on that tiny ovipositor and balls of pollens clutched beneath the moths’ chins. I talk about hornbills squawking wake-up calls to their mongoose pals outside their doors in the morning, “let’s go hunting together, come on!”, before they head out into the world and romp through Africa together. The mongooses scare the bugs and lizards out of the grass, and the hornbills munch them, simultaneously scanning the horizon for predators as they fly above, sending warning calls down when they spot a mongoose enemy. Lemurs eat fruits and poop the seeds out across the forest, spreading new trees. Bees get drunk on nectar and pollinate flower after flower. Ants raise aphids, carrying them gently out of the rain, bringing them food, and eating the sweet honey-substance they excrete. This is nature, not a Disney movie, and these species do these things inadvertently or unawares, because they help their own species survive and not out of the goodness of their own hearts. To a human, however, it’s a delight when you see survival eked out due to cooperation and serendipity.
I try to have a mutualistic relationship with all of the living things in my life. I’d rather not be a parasite or a predator or a competitor. Nature gives me beauty and things to climb around on or ski down or sit in, and I want to give back as good as I get. With people too, the goal is a two-way street. I just spent a fantastic weekend with my parents, brother (who showed up as a surprise, which blew my mind), and aunt. We sprawled in heavy warm sunshine, dove into a chilly lake, played games and ate food and drank beer. We wrapped each other in wooly hugs and walked the streets laughing. After my parents and aunt left, my brother and I perched on the hardwood floor in my evening-house. “They give us so much,” my brother said. “I hope we give enough back.” And I hope so too.