Forbidden Knowledge and the Aspen-Body
Western man is trained to see himself as an individual; his manhood is contingent upon an ability to make his way in the world. A stiff upper lip, a chest thrust out, swallowing emotions of loneliness, the requisite need to prove one’s worth to family and world, the desperate prayer for grace from a judging God sitting in Heaven…all contribute to and make for our Occidental sense of the individual Self.
We are a nation, a society, and a culture of individualism. The tension between the individual and the collective has long been with us however. E.E. Cummings said it beautifully this way:
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
This noble statement captures much of the essence of what I reference as wild resiliency: our willingness and capacity to be loyal to our own deep Self. And it is the Aspen Body that is capable of initiating us into an essential portion of our deep, primeval and imaginative nature. These portions of our nature, in the modern West, lie in the territory of forbidden knowledge and can be summarized thusly:
We are not separate. We are a family, a collective, a community with all of Life. And not only are we a community, but you and I are as well. Goethe said it this way:
No living thing is unitary in nature; every such thing is a plurality. Even the organism which appears to us as an individual exists as a collection of independent entities.
This is as true of us as it is of the Aspen leaf. We would die without the billions of bacteria that aid our digestion of food. In fact, we commune daily with one to two pounds of bacteria and fungi and…lice…, which happily call our mobile bodies home in exchange for all sorts of services, such as keeping our eyelashes ‘clean’ and our skin renewing.
The mythology of the heroic individual however, has so pervaded our unconscious minds and fragmented our thinking that we are in danger of self-destruction for want of balancing truths: i.e. the paradoxical, collective, and ecological nature of the Self.
The self is, after all, a scalable construction of imaginal boundaries, just as is the ‘corporation’. Just ask the Aspen Body, the Aspen tree, or the ramet, as biologists reference the single shoot or solo sprout — arising from the massive root system of the larger organism. It knows that it thrives but through the grace of community while we modern humans see the above ground structure of the ‘tree’ and think that is the individual, the self. We would be in no less error to think of the leaf as the self or as the organism. Here is an image that more closely approximates the ‘organism’.
Aspen Groves, you see, scientists now believe to be the largest individual organism on the planet. (I propose an alternative view here.) It turns out that Aspens dwarf the redwood and the whale, and even the massive and extensive mycelia networks previously thought to be the largest organisms. (see here) And Pando, an Aspen grove in Utah, is now thought to be 80,000 to one million years old. (Yes!) But the Aspen Body is not yet done with our re-education, turning us toward a biognosis (wisdom knowledge) of Life. Nope.
For you see, the Aspen Grove arises out of this root system, lying below and out of our ordinary vision, awareness and imagination. The larger organism is, like Life, invisible to us except through and as we gain awareness and biognosis of how Life actually operates and sustains itself. Interestingly, this corresponds with the world’s perennial philosophies, Indigenous traditions, and with particle physics, in which the visible world is recognized to arise out of and be supported by an unseen ‘realm.’
Further extending this correspondence, is the fact that our Aspen can no more live without mutualistic relationships with various bacteria and fungi (mushrooms being the sexual organ of the mycelia species), than can you or I live without the bacteria in our guts.
So where does the Self begin or end? And who or what is the self? Who are you? What is this thing we call a self?
Today’s challenges arising out of the confluences of a shrinking globe, climatic destabilization, technological revolutions, bacterial resistance to antibiotics, clashing fundamentalist world views, social alienation, massive human migrations… these can no more be solved through fragmented though clever thinking than can an individual human being procreate.
A different world view is called for, a transformational one, one with ancient and primeval roots that is yet strong and healthy and hardy, one that evokes biological and mythic images of wholeness and of diversity and of individual beauty.
I believe that the Aspen-Body is such an image for our time.
To live with a knowledge and experience, a vision, of the unity of all life is to conduct one’s affairs, one’s business, and one’s national policies from a very different set of values and percepts than it is to go through life proving your worth. Life becomes about cooperation rather than domination, and it become about honoring the wholeness and potentiality and health of your own Self.
What would it mean for me, for you, to live out of the largeness of our Self, as opposed to living out of the smallness of our constructed egos?
I warned you this was forbidden knowledge.
[Alan Watts has a wonderful little book addressing this entitled: The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are]