Older and Stronger than Mountains and Sky: The Long Body
Let me take you to the river. I want to show you something miraculous—something that lives there that has been alive longer than the sky or the mountains. The reason I want to show you this is to make you feel good. Knowing that the life we live right now is connected to all the lives around us should make you feel good, I think. (We are not alone!) Knowing that the life we live right now is older than the sky and the mountains, well, I think that might make you feel even better. (What power we carry with us that we barely even recognize because, like the breath we just breathed, we take it for granted!) Let’s go, get out of here and down to the river!
William Cullen Bryant, the great North American nature poet, wrote:
He was sensitive to what the Iroquois called the “long body“:
“The sensory and muscular systems are properties of the familiar or “small” body. A person also has “long body” that can perceive and affect conatively significant objects that are out of reach of the small body. The long body is an Iroquois term that refers to the tribal body, and embraces living members of the tribe, as well as ancestors, tribal lands and objects. Families, tribes, corporations, churches and other groups, are long bodies that are composed of the long bodies of their members.”
What a different view of ourselves this is! We are not just individually-packaged, brandable, marketable, identity-products! We are part of the long body—our faces handed down from ancestors farther back than genealogies fathom, our features shared by our kin, our bodies filled with water that fell from the sky and drained through the soils. Our selves are less the unique existential objects we are conditioned to perceive them to be, than they are the matrix of myriad biophysical entities and forces. Without place, there’s no face. What Bryant was sensitive to, and understood, is: everything outside of us is us.
I realize that this fact (that we have a long body) seems ridiculous—but let me suggest the ridiculousness is proof of its miraculousness. We are much more than we have ever been taught.
It was Bryant’s sensitivity to his environment that informed him of his long body, not scientific research. What so wonderful is that we are able to be as sensitive he was to what is actually happening around and to us, what is actually giving us life and making us who we are. Life is the miracle making everything happen, whether it is our own, our children’s, even the neighbor’s dog that barks all the time. Keeping that sensitivity sensitive, and moving it to the forefront of consciousness and into the daily humdrumeries, takes practice; it needs to be encouraged and shared; and it needs to be employed to inform our actions, personal, social, political and economic.
So that is why we are now at the river! Time to sense the life larger than ours, and cultivate sensitivity to it.
Let us first look at the massive river-sculptured stones at the Chesterfield Gorge, Shelburne Falls or Rock Dam. These beautiful places might seem like they have been like this since the beginning of time, but they haven’t been. You are far older than they are! Wherever we live in the valley or the hills, everything we see around us that is not made by humans—mountains, rivers, valleys—are the result of the actions of the Laurentian Ice Sheet that melted only 12,000 years ago. Our ancestors migrated from northeastern Africa 50-60,000 years ago—and they are not dead; we are them; they are us. By virtue of our long body, we are more than 4 times older than these places! And we can eat ice cream!
The sculptured ledges and boulders were whittled by the rushing torrents spewed by melting glaciers, and there were people here then; hunting the same caribou that followed the melting ice and now live in the shrinking Arctic Circle. Think of them when you see Sugarloaf Mountain in South Deerfield, because it was one of their favorite places—like it is ours, today!
The sculptured stones of our rivers are ancient, anywhere from 400 to 200 million years old—but they are younger than what I have brought down by the riverside to to see: Gallionella ferruginea, the bacteria that makes rust colored plumes near riverbanks by metabolizing iron dissolved in the water. As it metabolizes the iron it affixes oxygen molecules, which oxidizes the iron and turns it orange.
Gallionella is an aerobic (“air-breathing”) bacteria works with an anaerobic (“non-air-breathing”) relative that metabolizes dead leaves inside the riverbank, and “poops” out soluble iron. The iron is carried by flowing subterranean water into the river, where Gallionella metabolizes it, producing rust colored plumes. The anaerobic bacteria’s action of “biological iron apportionment has been described as one of the most ancient forms of microbial metabolism on Earth, and as a conceivable extraterrestrial metabolism on other iron-mineral-rich planets such as Mars.”
From now on, when you see the rust colored plumes in streams and rivers, pause and cultivate sensitivity—you’re in the presence of creatures whose family is older than any place on earth you’ve been, any mountain you’ve ever walked on or even seen pictures of. And then consider that you have as many bacteria on and in you than you have of your own cells! And that our immune systems are significantly constituted by symbiotic bacteria like Lactoacidophilus; which proves we share our long body with them. And photosynthesis—the metabolism of solar radiation by chlorophyll—was first accomplished by bacteria 2.3 billion years ago; and these bacteria created our atmosphere.
The blue sky is a child of the most ancient and primitive lifeforms on earth that generously exhaled it, giving us a place where we can have a face. And that is why I brought you here to the river. I wanted you to meet iron bacteria and cultivate a sensitivity for the life of the long body, older and stronger than the rocks and the sky—and as immediate as we are.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family. Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!