Advent 3: Of Lichens and Mystery
And on knowing what we don't know
Several years ago I was sitting on my back porch listening to my kids having a conversation while they built towers from random bits of wood collected to be “loose parts” to inspire the imagination. I overheard my oldest tell my youngest that lichens were neither plants nor animals. I was surprised, but also figured he was probably right as he has a gift for remembering things like that. I quickly googled it and discovered he was correct: lichens are neither plants nor animals and while classified with fungi, they aren’t really that either. Rather they are a constant symbiosis of a fungus and an algae, and as we’ve studied them further, we’ve discovered even more parts making lichen miniature systems that we still don’t understand.
What I do understand is the more I learn the more convinced I am that everything is connected. All of life is a vast tapestry. Just because we don’t see or understand the connections doesn’t mean they don’t exist. To pull one thread here may unravel something we never even see, but there is still an unraveling.
From things I’ve read and learned about just this week, the connections become ever clearer even if we don’t understand all of them.
For example, we think of ourselves as individuals. Our skin wraps a body that is self-contained and definable. But is it? We’ve all read the things about how none of our cells are the ones we are born with. We can extend that if we realize that we are seventy-something percent water and the water that goes in and out of us is part of the water cycle. The minerals in our bodies passed through lichens somewhere, in their posts on trees and rocks: what was part of them is now part of us and what is part of us will one day be part of them.
In a recent study in Finland, they discovered that kids exposed to forest spaces had better immune systems than kids that weren’t. We are hosts to a multitude of living organisms without which we cannot live. The same is true of the forest and now it is clear–even though not understood–that the biome of the forest enriches the biome inside us. I would imagine given the nature of the forest as a cooperative means that we also give something that enriches the forest even as it enriches us.
We breathe with the forest: inhaling the oxygen the trees respirate and respirating the carbon dioxide the trees inhale. In and out, out and in, every day without thinking, we breathe with the trees.
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There’s bacterium in soil that functions as an antidepressant and we’ve learned that imbalances in our gut bacteria can cause depression and anxiety. I’m guessing something about being in the forest and coming into contact with dirt balances our own gut biomes out when you add this with the discovery in Finland. Dirt makes us healthier and happier. But only the living dirt where each spoonful is a microscopic universe that we still don’t understand.
Lichens are undefinable really. So are humans. Seeking to understand is part of our humanness but too often we try so hard to understand that we start to categorize. And categorizing without understanding leads to all kinds of misunderstanding.
So it has been with the dark and the wild. I’ve shared before I used to be afraid of the forest while simultaneously longing for it. The idea that wilderness is dangerous has caused us to retreat. If seeking to understand is part of what makes us human, what happens when we stop? What happens when our insecurities lead us to abandon mystery? To shrink our worlds to only what we think we understand?
But if everything is so much bigger and mysterious than we can even begin to explain, what happens to us in these tiny, self-defined worlds? And if there’s so much that we can’t define, what does that mean for those who think they’ve got it figured out?
Kids’ immune systems in Finland
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
“Unlearning Death” by Jarod Anderson in Field Guide to the Haunted Forest
Alabama Trailblaze Challenge 2023
Last year, I decided my words for the year were “find out,” and one of the things I wanted to find out was if I could pull off the 2022 Trailblaze challenge. And I did! Hiking by myself on all those training hikes showed me a lot of personal strength and I went into wanting to help kids but it still felt like more of a personal goal.
This year, as I sign back up in the midst of studying the interconnectedness of the forests I hike through, I realize that we are all connected: connected to each other, connected to the rest of life on this planet for better or worse.
Hiking last year with several hundred others, getting to know them on the hike weekend, hearing their stories, I realized how much of a difference it makes when we all come together. Raising over a million dollars seems like a lot when we’re raising $2500 to $5000 a person, but when you multiply that by hundreds of hikers and thousands of donors, suddenly it’s achievable. We raised over a million last year, and we’re setting out to do it again. And you can be a part of the story! Some of you already have been, and I’m so grateful that you’re back to do it again.
I am excited to take on this year’s Trailblaze Challenge. In addition to the physical challenge, I have committed myself to raising the critical funds necessary for Make-A-Wish to grant the one true wish for each eligible child with a critical illness. With your help, it’s possible.
Did you know that Make-A-Wish grants more than 15,000 wishes nationwide every year? That’s a lot, yes. But that’s only 50% of the eligible kids. Every hour of every day, on average, three children are diagnosed with a critical illness. Every one of these kids needs a wish to give them strength and help them heal. I’m fundraising so more deserving kids and their families can know the true happiness, relief and renewal a wish can bring.
These essential wishes are only possible because of supporters like you. Together, we are transforming lives- One wish at a time!
Will you help me support Make-A-Wish by donating today?
Reclaiming Your Wild
Visit this post to learn more about hiking and backpacking retreats where we reconnect with the wild in ourselves and learn to read the Book of Nature. Coming Fall of 2023.
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Substack now has chat in the app!
In an effort to be a more robust media ecosystem, Substack has created an app that now lets you see all your subscriptions in a feed, as well as chat with your favorite authors and other subscribers who read them! Head over to your app store, or click here and download that for a more complete experience.
Return of the Poisoned Bible Project
I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to think I can do more than I can actually do. Far from the initial monthly installments I envisioned, I have only managed to dig into three of the many thorny texts you all submitted to the survey (which is still open so keep it up!).
I suppose writing a whole book in there is a possible excuse, but I do want to get better at both regular thoughts here for the newsletter and more regular PBP episodes as well. And so I began the way I often do, not with examining the texts, no, but with designing a spiffy new logo! It shows my determination, I think ;-)
So I’m pleased to announce PBP Episode 4: Spare the Rod: Authoritarianism and Childism (What we get wrong about proof texting those “discipline” verses) will be coming January 8th, 2023. I know that’s a ways out still, but as I’m returning to my Advent series tradition, I needed to push it beyond those articles.
Also! All past and future episodes can be found here in the new section I created if you want to browse them (there is one I couldn’t move because evidently when the audio and text are together, they get stuck to the main channel only, but I’ve created internal links in the articles so navigation is still fairly seamless).
Anna Elisabeth Howard writes highly caffeinated takes on shalom as a lens for everything from her front porch in Hendersonville, TN where she lives with her husband and two sons. She is a community organizer and movement chaplain with a background in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. An avid hiker and backpacker, many thoughts start somewhere in the middle of the woods, or under a waterfall. She is a regular contributer to Earth & Altar and her latest book is Inward Apocalypse: Uncovering a Faith for the Common Good.
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