Is the universe alive? What about the earth? Or nature as a whole?
My belief is that the universe along with earth’s mountains, oceans and atmosphere are not alive but that we feel they are living because we respond to them so strongly. Many persuasive writers, though, seem convinced that they are alive—not merely similar to living things but animated by a life of their own. I’m trying to clarify my thinking about that.
The literature dates back to the Greeks. The philosopher Thales, for example, wrote around 600 B.C. that a magnetic stone attracts iron because the stone has a soul. The 19th century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt believed that one could not understand nature unless one understood the interaction of all its parts, including human society, because nature as a whole was a living thing. In his 2007 essay “Earth in Eclipse,” David Abrams refers to humans evolving in “intimate rapport with the other bodies—animals, plants, mountains, rivers—that compose the shifting flesh of this breathing world.” And Bart Everson, in his essay “Awakening to Gaia” in the new collection Godless Paganism, writes, “To awaken to Gaia is to recognize other animals and plants as our distant cousins, to recognize that our kinship extends even to rocks, to the sea, to the atmosphere” (273).
In such statements, it’s difficult to know where personification and metaphor leave off and the belief that nature is literally alive begins. But collectively they show how easily we think of inorganic stuff as living or lifelike—lifelike not just in the way of simple bacteria but lifelike in the way of humans, with complexity and awareness.
I think that one reason people believe our environment might be alive is that we are constantly pouring and projecting ourselves into it. We are hypnotized and soothed by the ocean, so we say that the ocean is hypnotic and soothing. We feel enlarged and humbled in the presence of mountains, and we call them inspiring. In this way, our responses become their qualities, and their qualities make them seem alive.
In addition, people worry that we are out of touch with nature and think that by viewing the seas, the wind, and sunlight as alive, we might grow closer to them. I’m not so sure. I think we might feel more in touch with nature if we saw more clearly the differences between its living members and its inanimate materials and forces. We—all living things—may be inextricably linked with the earth and the sun, but we are also very unlike them. We are unusual, reproductive, self-modifying, enclosed mini-systems. Rocks, water, and stars are not.
It even, I think, smacks of vanity for us to see the oceans or the stars as versions of ourselves. Many marvels arise in nature, and life is only one of them. We see nature in our image because doing so comes easily to us. But we have great difficulty understanding the quantum oddities of nuclear bits and the dynamics of the unfolding universe. We—most people—are best connected to the rest of nature, I believe, by valuing the story of life on earth, managing our power over nature more responsibly, and standing humbly before the mysteries of non-living matter and energy.
As humans, we can’t help but radiate our energy out to the mountains, the oceans, and the sky. Doing so is our way of feeling fully alive and of seeking connections with what is greater; it’s a form of love. The glow, the seeming “aliveness” that shines back at us from inanimate nature is, I think, only our own reflection, but it helps fulfill us.