i heard a whisper of truth today. 

every once in a while, i come across something written or spoken that sums up with perfect succinctness a thing or many things that i have thought or believed, with varying degrees of abstractness, for a long time.  the brilliant simplicity smacks me between the eyes, leaving me slightly stunned, often wordless (obviously not today), and in great admiration for the wisdom of the articulate author.  the first time i read ishmael i felt like that for most of the book, and a while afterward.  louise erdrich often evokes the same response. 

today it was a guest on the american public media program speaking of faith, which my mom introduced me to several weeks ago.  previously my favorite interviewee was wangaari mathai , who was interviewed on the show in late 2006.  in the program i listened to today, the host interviewed katy payne, the biologist who first recorded and studied whale songs, and was later the first to recognize the use of infrasonic long-distance communication in elephants.

dr payne responded to questions and told stories about her whale and elephant research.  her friendly voice reminded me of jessica tandy and also my grandmother, as she talked in simple, declarative sentences about individual animals she had known and studied, and people she had worked with.  but she also voiced concerns over the wider implications of some local conflicts she had observed, and shared some of her personal fundamental philosophies.

i sat listening in my office as i worked on preparing and illustrating tentacular hooks from one of the squid species i'm studying.  my office-mate was out, but i had headphones on all the same, so my entire attention was focused down the eyepiece of the microscope and on the voices speaking only into my ears.  and about halfway through the show, in explaining her own quaker spirituality, dr payne said:  

'My church is outdoors, mostly.  What’s sacred to me is this planet we live on.  It’s been here for more than 4 billion years.  Life has been on it for only 3 billion years.  Life as we know it… for a very short time.  It’s the only planet where life has been found.  And that to me is… what I ultimately consider sacred.'

looking through the scope, at the exquisite detail on the tiny piece of the small specimen of one of many million obscure species that 99.99% of the people on this planet have never heard of, i thought,  yes. YES.  the diversity of life forms that have evolved successfully, that all live together at this moment, most of which are unknown to science and the sum total of which represents less than .5% of all the species that have ever lived on this single planet – that is, truly, what is most amazing and sacred about our world.   and that is what, as a result of overconsumption and overpopulation, is on the brink of damage beyond repair.

but because i cannot match dr payne's simple eloquence, i will leave you with her own humbling final words on the subject.  (and i cannot recommend too strongly that you take an hour to listen to the interview yourself.)  following a question on the problem of poaching, she said:

'I don’t want to [divide the world into good guys and bad guys] at all.  I think that whatever relief to the situation comes, is going to come as the result of a lot of integrated effort, of people who are helping in human development… people who are interested in wildlife conservation, and people who are using law enforcement in a considered and careful way, to protect a marvelous species that’s in danger of extinction – these elephants in the African rainforest are living in an amazingly diverse place.  One of the ironies of our situation is that the places where you find most diversity, the most kinds of animals and plants, tend to be the places where people are poorest.  And so we’ve got a lot to think about.  There’s a lot that we, who have too much, can do about this, because one of the very big driving forces that leads to the exploitation of the forests and of the minerals that are in the forests could be called ‘greed’ on the part of people in the developed countries.  We don’t need to have as much, we don’t need to use so much gas… we can use other kinds of energy and so forth and so on.  If each of us restricts our own lives to what we need, there’ll be more for everyone… so that’s our task, you see.  Here we are on the radio.  Our task is to make this real.  This planet is the only place where we have this kind of life.  Let’s not blow it.'

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