One of the most disturbing stories I found in Planet Earth II was the tale of the birdcatcher tree (Pisonia tree) in the Islands episode. The Pisonia grows on remote islands across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The tree’s strategy for dispersing its seeds is to grow sticky seeds covered in tiny barbs that stick to the feathers of seabirds. Without knowing, in their journey across islands, the seabirds carry the seeds with them.
The show told of two possible unfoldings of this story of pollination. On one hand, is the virtuous, life-enhancing outcome from a certain natural symbiosis. The seabirds that had used the Pisonia trees as their place for nesting and nursing their offspring leave their host but in return they carry on them the trees’ own babies. In this universe, life is propagated.
The alternative universe is dark and devastating. In the episode, the crew shows how so many of the seabirds’ younglings become tangled and entrapped in enough Pisonia seeds to weigh them down to the ground and prohibit them from flying. The tiny seabirds (100 g), unable to fly due to the weight of the seeds starve to death.
On the positive side of things, one could say that nature is wise and that it finds a way to perpetuate life even when death abounds. After all, the corpses of the young seabirds become nutrients for the soil and nourish the Pisonia’s roots.
In particular I want to share three reflections that were inspired on this episode. The story is a great analogy of so many situations in which I have found myself–entangled if you will. Also, I want to talk about the seemingly unfair kind of preference that Nature shows for life-promoting mechanisms regardless of the pain and misery that can spur from them. Finally, I’ll share a lesson I found elsewhere once upon a time when I was also lost and that brought me a new perspective on life and family.
The first reflection has to do with those sticky situations that can result in only two scenarios. From these situations I can either leave victorious as an improved individual armed with the power of creating new beautiful great things, or I can suffer a painful and miserable death.
Of course, the first example of these type of experiences that comes to mind are grad-school (one which has not yet killed me). I am in the middle of my fourth year as PhD student and I have seen the darkest parts of my soul. I have faced depression and slowly slowly I am finally starting to feel confident that everything is going to be alright and that I will leave this place victorious as an improved individual armed with the power of creating new beautiful great things. Yet, I seriously thought I had lost myself along the process. There was a time I couldn’t care less about life, my life, I thought I wasn’t worthy of anything nice and that the only reason to continue in my program was because everything else was identically pointless and meaningless.
A second example is my 2016 hospitalization for the removal if my Ileon and the process of recovery that came after having lost literally everything I had worked for in the past and having my future vanish unexpectedly and immediately. In the end I lived. Not just that I recovered very well and became a stronger person and a better athlete. Not only did I play my sport again, I competed at a Division 1 school in the US and got my studies completely paid for with an athletic scholarship.Until this day I continue to explore my physical limits, trying new sports and new activities. Always searching for the edge, fearless, playful, focused and full of joy.
The second reflection that was sparked by the birdcatcher episode has to do with the notion of nature being wise and imposing on us and our natural world a counter-intuitive order. At first, it seems unfair that the macabre seabird’s rotting corpse had just as much value for Nature in meeting its objective of perpetuating life than the graceful flight across the islands of the seabirds carrying the tree’s seeds in gratitude for having had the luxury of raising their own babies under their protection. Yet, I trust that Nature is wise and that that equa treatment of means is the correct one. After all, Nature is not fair. It is just…well, just Natural. I find that puzzling and terribly confusing.
Finally, I want to follow the idea of the rotting bird to share an analogy that I believe provides a valuable lesson about family. This analogy is not mine. I found it–or it found me, it is hard to tell–sometime maybe 5 years ago when I was a teenager leaving far away from home on my own in Bozeman, MT.
I was never unhappy in MT, but I was young and a foreigner and things felt very weird and fast many times and I sometimes I missed my family and culture. Of all places, I used to like visiting the Catholic cathedral in Bozeman. I thought of this place as a portal. I knew that every Sunday the 10:00 am mass in Bozeman would coincide for a few minutes with the 11:30 am mass in Cota, Colombia–where my family went to church. I knew that for about 30 minutes, we would be listening to the same readings, the same homily, signing the same chants. That’s the beauty of Catholicism. It is Universal and standardized.
Anyway, the story is that the priest at Holy Rosary (the Parish), father Leo, was an outstanding orator. A man with a powerful voice, a strong presence, a beautiful composition of his rose, a fine sense of humor, with a visual way of efficiently and precisely expressing himself by telling stories and using metaphors. I really enjoyed every single mass I went to with Father Leo.
This time, Father Leo was talking about family and more specifically about conflict within families and the repulsion we sometimes feel for our relatives. We know too much about them, we are too close. We know all their dirty laundry. We don’t want to see them sometimes. I completely identified with that aversion. I was a teenager remember?
Father Leo talked about us as trees. Maybe a Pisonia tree, maybe some other tree. Trees have branches and trunks and they use them to grown tall and reach the sun. But no tree can live without roots, our roots nourish and support us. And our roots are our families… and they are immersed in crap and rotting things. But that’s how Nature goes and the tree won’t live at all if it decides to remove its roots. Here again, Nature is counter-intuitive and the rotting young seabird nourishes the Pisonia that killed the bird by trying to use its help for sending seeds to new places so that they could grow as independent trees and start a new forests. Such is Nature. it seems we don’t really a choice of whether we die or we leave victorious as improved individuals.
If it helps, In the case that we do live, I want to invite you and me to create new beautiful great things.