Mankind has only relatively recently started to communicate with animals. Progress is being made, but rather limited to listening to whales singing and to teaching American Sign Language to monkeys. But there are many life forms that do not have a language. Could we interact with them too and exchange some understanding of Gaia? A pioneer is, of course, Edward O. Wilson with his extensive work on sociobiology. But my favourite is Ernest Thompson Seton whose book “Wild Animals I have known” appeared in 1898. Seton has been criticized for making animals think like humans and behave with anthropomorphic motivation. For me, this misses the point that we need human language for communication among ourselves. Our language gives a “human” interpretation to everything we talk about. Seton was more perceptive than most.
Once I had the opportunity to meet a speechless and alien form of life living on this planet, on Gaia. We met unexpectedly. We did not understand each other. But circumstances were such that we would spend a lifetime together. This life form taught me something. Let me tell you how this happened.
A Thousand Years
As a young student, I was once on a short visit to Israel. I decided to take a trip to the north, first visiting the town of Tiberias where Jesus walked on water and miraculously distributed fish and bread to the hungry. Then, I went up to the Golan Heights, still occupied by Israel after the war with Syria. People had been killing each other here – for no reason at all, as it seemed to me. The history of the Mediterranean started here – at least the part I knew. The Phoenicians used the cedars that grow here to build merchant ships travelling all the way to Gibraltar and perhaps even to England thousands of years ago. This land has always been a place of history and drama.
But during my visit, everything was peaceful, wonderful in fact. A marvellous day. Sun on a clear blue sky. Cool and just wonderful compared with heath in the town of Kiryat Shmona, a little bit south. I walked slowly along a sandy road – or, was it just an ancient path, centuries old? The land was dry, but, here and there I could see grasslands and trees and bushes against the horizon. Nothing but peace. Somehow I started to hum for myself Luis Armstrong’s song “ …. and I think to myself, what a wonderful world ….”
But suddenly terror was there – total terror.
I was about to step on a landmine. It had been buried in the sand since the war and had now come to the surface. It was still ready there to kill, to kill me. I froze, I could not move – my right foot only a few centimetres above the visible detonator. Only a few seconds of my life remained. Never before had I been so close to my death. In all wars, old landmines kept killing people long after the war is over. I should not have come here.
I couldn’t move. I felt my heart banging and cold sweat running over my hands … Seconds ticked away. …. How many seconds before the detonation? ….
But, waiting helped… My brain started to work again … Maybe the mine did not function anymore? In any case, I had not touched it. And people must have walked here before. Perhaps the situation wasn’t that critical after all? Trucks and even tanks had gone this way. Perhaps the trigger was not as sensitive as I thought … I stepped back, slowly, still in shock.
Had I overreacted? From my military service, I remembered that hand grenades sometimes had a distinctive pattern like a small pineapple. It was this visible pattern that had made me recognize the grenade and react to the immediate danger. I could see the pattern clearly on the device in the sand, … but … hum … this one was somewhat different … I tried to look closer… Strange, this grenade did not look particularly old… It was not very dusty at all… In fact, it looked new and shining, as if it had fallen on the road only a short while ago.
I sat down to get a better view. But, wait a minute …! Was this strange object really a hand grenade? It was so shining and with such beautiful green colours. Was it a metallic object at all! Or …. could it be some kind of fruit? In fact, now I could even see some small dry leaves at the top. Relieved, but still cautious, I removed some of the sand surrounding the bizarre object. Now I was sure. Ugh, I had been an idiot. With a smile, I took it in my hand.
But, how heavy it was!
For a second returned the illusion that this was indeed a deadly weapon.
But no! What I took as a grenade was simply a beautiful fruit of some kind. In fact, it was just a big, fresh and shiny cone. Probably it had recently fallen from a nearby tree. I sat down to study this wonderful piece of nature more in detail. How perfectly symmetrical! Such wonderful colours! How vital it was, full of life! What a fantastic discovery! This was the most impressive cone I had seen in my life!! After having admired the cone for a while I stood up. And now what? Should I dig a small pit and put it back where I found it, or should I throw it somewhere where it could seed a whole nice little forest in this otherwise rather desert-like land? I looked at the cone again. No, I simply could not depart from such a marvellous treasure, not just like that. So, I put the cone in my rucksack. It was to become souvenir from Golan and Israel. A cone would be as good a souvenir as anything else.
Back in Helsinki, I put the cone on my bookshelf. It was a nice little decoration and it frequently generated questions. What is that? Where is that one coming from? I told my friends how I had found the cone by accident in Israel, and that I had mistaken it for a hand grenade. We laughed at my preconception that everything at Golan was about war and destruction. This cone was indeed a real treasure, but similar treasures could be found in our Nordic forests too, my friends said.
Years passed and I did not pay much attention to the cone anymore. For me the cone was a reminder of troubled Palestine, and, because of that, it deserved its place on my bookshelf. It was just a simple cone, I thought.
However, it would turn out that the treasure from Golan was not just a simple cone. It came from another world than mine, an alien world, a world that I did not know. The cone was a living being, an alien life form. Deep within itself, the cone harboured an ancient secret. A secret created long before the Phoenicians cut their first cedars for their merchant ships on the Mediterranean. It was a secret of life and survival, that its ancestors had passed on from generation to generation.
The cone wanted, like me and all living beings on Gaia, to live its life in full; to live to perfection; to fulfil its purpose in life. For the cone, dramatic stages of its life still remained to be accomplished. The cone was waiting. But, it never occurred to me that the cone could have its own independent future in store for it, a future independent and different from mine. But it had, and in its own way, the cone would remind me of its origin, of Palestine and its historic home. In its own way, the cone would tell me about its mission on Gaia.
It happened late one evening. Autumn had arrived and it was dark outside. The busy street was already silent and my neighbours on the opposite side of the street had turned off their lights. I sat in my study reading in the light of my evening lamp, as I often did during evenings like this. The only sounds breaking the silence was the sound of turning the pages of my book.
This was the moment the cone had selected.
The time had come and the cone exploded with a loud detonation.
Projectiles flew around in my room. They hit the walls and I was hit in the head. First I did not understand what has happened. I was afraid there had been a gas explosion in the kitchen, or a crack in the walls of the house. I jumped up and tried to find an indication of the cause. But, after the explosion, there was complete silence again. Everything was suddenly as peaceful as it had been a moment ago.
I started to slowly walk around – any fire or smell of smoke? … any cracks in the wall? … What had happened? … I went closer to the wall where the bookshelf was. Everything seemed to be in its right place … but, … something had happened to the cone! It looked somehow different. In fact, it had changed completely.
The cone had opened up itself and, apparently, thrown its seeds around in the room with a surprising force. It was the seeds that had hit me! Yes, the cone had matured – after years of preparation! It had done it in the way its forefathers had done it for thousands of years, by breaking up suddenly and throwing its seeds as far as possible. I had thought that the cone was dead and dry. But no, it had been preparing itself for the most important moment in its life.
I collected the seeds and put them all in a box. They were small, brown and hard as stone. Throwing the seeds in the waste bin right now seemed inappropriate. For some time at least, they could stay on the shelf together with the cone itself. What a cone!
Years passed. The cone dried slowly completely and lost its shining green colour. It became brown and thorny like other cones. I did not have the courage to throw the seeds away, so they could stay in the box. I showed the seeds to my children and said: “these are wonder-seeds from Palestine”. In this way, the cone moved with me and my family to the USA and lived there in a dark drawer for years. When I moved with my family back to Finland almost a decade later, the cone and its seeds joined us of course. And, once again the cone and its seeds ended up on my bookshelf. And, once again I looked into the box as I had done so many times before. The seeds were as they had always been: small, brown, like stones. But they remained somehow enigmatic as if there still was something untold. But, I told myself that probably they had died long ago, together with the cone itself. However, a strange respect for the cone and its seeds, made me close the box again and put it back. In this way, the seeds survived from year to year. During every spring cleaning, I opened the box, looked at the seeds and put them back on the self with a strange feeling.
Finally, one evening I decided to solve the puzzle of the enigmatic cone, once and for all. I searched for articles on the vegetation and trees in Lebanon, Golan Heights, cedars, images … whatever could tell me something about the cone and its seeds. Finally, I found what I was looking for: The cedars of the Phoenician have survived to our times, but only a few of them. Only about 400 cedars still grow in gorges of Lebanon and on high ground between Syria and Israel. They grow cones only when they are about 40 years old. Some of these cedars have lived for over a thousand years! The oldest ones are rightfully protected. The parent of my cone could have witnessed the crusaders arriving at the very same land where I found it.
A thought struck me: There still was a theoretical chance that a seed in the box could grow after having waited for thirty years in my home. A very small chance, but yet … Even if the seeds actually were dead, I wanted to know what was hiding inside the hard shell. I checked the seeds one by one with a looking glass. They were identical, dry, tough, not a single sign of life of any kind. I felt I could sacrifice one of them by trying to open it and see what was inside. After some trial and error and a fair bit of hard work, I was able to crack open one of the seeds.
After thirty years, the inside was still soft and moist! It was like a newborn baby!
I was struck by a bad feeling. I had stolen the cone from its habitat and kept it imprisoned like a slave for years. I should have known better. There was only one thing to do. The following day I took the box and drove out to a remote forest outside the city. I planted all the seeds in the forest, said goodbye to my alien friends and returned home.
Providing a very tough shell to protect the seeds and to then throw them out as far as possible was a survival strategy. It had been successful for hundreds of thousands of years! An individual belonging to this alien life form on Gaia could live for a millennium! I, if I were very lucky, could count on eighty years, a hundred at the very, very most. From the cones perspective, my lifespan was comparable to that of a dog.
I will go back to the forest and see if some of the seeds survived. If I find them growing, then they will thrive in the coming carbon-rich environment of Gaia, a consequence of global warming. A thousand years from now, they may remember our period as one of the excesses, but only one of many short and excessive periods that they and their ancestors have experienced. I understand now that I should respect the cone.
I wish I had some of its resilience.