This past weekend my friend Tara spoke about the recent death of South African President Nelson Mandela. In honor of his life, Tara introduced me to the concept of "Ubuntu." This philosophy, popular in many African cultures speaks to our interconnectedness to other human beings. It is contrary to the Paul Simon lyrics "I am a rock. I am an island."
"Ubuntu" is a belief that we are all part of a human community and the better for it. In fact, as humans we are defined by other humans.
Desmond Tutu, another South African civil rights activist wrote, "A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are."
It is easy to see how powerful this idea is in the face of a civil rights struggle. I was struck by the beauty of this idea in our otherwise independent society. While the idea of "ubuntu" is about human community, I was struck by how it applies to the natural community in which we live. Plants and animals are often defined in relation to one another.
An apt example is the food chain. Wildflowers are not just plants but food for a deer. The deer is not just a mammal but food for a coyote. And the coyote is not just a predator but a controller of deer. And when the coyote dies, it is more than just fur, meat and bones. It is food, energy, life for myriad scavengers. And so it is all related.
When one part of the community is altered, so are the others. When there are too many deer, they devastate the wildflowers and other plants. Deer can practically eliminate the understory of a forest by overgrazing.
When an invasive species moves in, it diminishes the health of the community. For example, Garlic Mustard outcompetes native wildflowers but deer don't eat much of it.
Just as we sometimes think of ourselves as individuals, operating independently of all others, don't we think of ourselves as independent of nature? We create boundaries, both literally and figuratively to keep nature in its place. We get annoyed when it invades our neat and tidy lives. No bugs in the house. No dirt on the floor. Keep nature outside and contained.
But we are part of that community, whether we like it or not. The wildflower, while they are not a regular food source for humans, they are beauty. Like the coyote, the deer can be food for us. We are mammals, just like the coyote. The scavengers and decomposers create nutrient rich soil for plants, many of which we eat. We rely on the same clean air, water and soil as these plants and animals.
And, as those things are diminished so are we, both mentally and physically. A walk in the spring without wildflowers just isn't the same. When there are too many deer, they become a hazard to us, on the roads and in our gardens.
Around the holidays, when we tend to be either more connected with family and friends or acutely recognize our perceived alone-ness, consider the fact that we all share something in common in our humanness. Furthermore, we all belong to the greater whole of this natural world.
This is a time of joy, celebration and sharing. Find joy in the beauty of the natural world. Celebrate the uniqueness of this region, this planet. And mostly, share this gift with others.
Come down and visit Audubon Center and Sanctuary this holiday season. Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn until dusk free of charge. During regular winter hours, visit the exhibits and live animals in the building Monday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Check for special holiday hours and programs.
Trails and Liberty our captive Bald Eagle are still open dawn to dusk daily. Call 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org for more information.
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.