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A Vertical Perspective

A Vertical Perspective  

And the Problem of Human Identity

by Steve Serr


You know, we humans have a vertical perspective. Well, of course, you say. Yet I still find it curious how the stuff right in front of our faces can be hard to see.

All this goes back to a ‘gnawing something’ that has been digging into my forebrain for years, gradually expanding into a very different way of looking at our species, and our world, than I had before. You see, I grew up as so many of us humans do, in a culture imbued to the core with a broadly held ‘gestalt’.

This was a gestalt that I took for granted as a youth who awkwardly groped through his upbringing and human enculturation. I was human, and trees were different. Trees were part of the landscape, but less on the scale of the order of things than animals. There was me, then our household pets, then the animals outside in the wild, then the trees, then little plants, ending up with bugs. Oh, and there were rocks and things, but these didn’t really count. With this accepted order of things automatic to my sensibility, it didn’t even cross my mind that trees and I both stood upright. Even though it was quite obvious.

That the landscape that I walked over, that the bugs that I swatted, that the little plants, trees, animals and even the household pets were parts of a single living organism, was a framework for understanding that was as foreign to me as were… desert nomads (I lived in American suburbs). It was only in college that I began to consider that nature was more than a mere life support system for humans. It was only then that I began to challenge the ‘status quo’s’ understanding of nature. I began to consider that she indeed, had the name ‘Gaia’ and was a being with whom I was deeply involved by my mere fact of existing.

I had already come to the conclusion that humans as a species were somewhat overly narcissistic in their sense of self importance. It has only later dawned on me that this human-centricism also applied to my sketchy relationships with pets, wild animals, trees, plants and yes, even bugs. In organizing all of this, my hitherto arrangement of everything into a sort of living pyramid shape began to dissolve into that of a tree with branches. Change in perception, however, came only in fits and starts, not all at once, and not evenly. Humans were still sort of ‘on top’, with a hard-to-ignore domination over such things as ranched and hunted animals, but they were still only one of many branches on the tree of life. Bugs didn’t count, trees and plants were still just part of the landscape, along with mountains and such.

It is only in the more recent decades that this sense of human species selfhood has begun to melt again. The pyramid shape, having crumbled into that of a tree (or something approximating one), has begun to dissolve once more. Certainly, humans are no longer on top of a stone-hard pyramid (such as in Egypt), but neither are they at the tippy-tip of one of the branches of the ‘tree of life’. This human ‘self-identity’ has been gradually shifting again, though it is exceedingly difficult to it a shape. OK, it’s not the pointy top of a pyramid, or fluttering leaf on a biological tree. But it’s something.

So, I somewhat surprisingly see myself surprised and at the same time, going ‘duh!’ when considering that both trees and human beings have an upright nature. It is like looking at oneself in the mirror: we see ourselves, perhaps, every day. But what do we see? The fact that we share this upright nature with trees is literally ‘in our face’, but quite honestly, it is also disturbingly absent. Like looking in a mirror, we change, and yet we don’t seem to. That is, until someone points it out. Then I, at least, am in the mirror, all over it actually, observing seemingly for the first time what has been in front of me every day. Wrinkles, errant hairs, and all.

Well, of course we share this upright nature with trees. And how intriguing. It is hard to see that which is so close as our face in a mirror, which leaves me thinking: perhaps there is a very simple reason why we have difficulties creating a new image of how we perceive ourselves as humans, and why this still seems so hard to grasp. The utmost point of a pyramid, tree branches ending in leaves: these species self-conceptions are hard to let go.

I see photos taken of me in years gone by and I guess I have to admit that deep inside, I still harbor ideas that I somewhat resemble that younger man. Even though I don’t. Perhaps similarly, we as a species share a more broadly human gestalt of seeing ourselves at the top of a pyramid, or as a spread of small branches ending in a profusion of leaves on the distal segment of a very large tree. Perhaps these images are carried around somewhere inside us as we course our species way through the world, even if we begin to notice that these vague images seem to be dissolving.

If it is true that observing ourselves as an individual and as a species has a rather slithery way of slipping out of our attention, perhaps our difficulty learning to recognize ourselves as a part of the whole living Earth, as a part of Gaia, has to do with the simple fact that she, and we, are parts of a shared, larger self.

Perhaps human beings are in comparison with the Earth, relationally speaking, more like tiny cells that walk (or fly or drive) across the skin of this immense larger organism, this somewhat spherical being of which we are a part. Perhaps the difficulty in ‘seeing’ our species nature is because of a bigger problem. A problem that is literally, as big as the Earth.

If one of the nerve cells in my brain decided to wander around within my cranium, looking for a mirror, wander as it would, I have deep trust that there is no mirror within my brain upon which it might gaze. As a human being who is but a part of the living body of Gaia, I wonder where the ‘mirror’ is in our species-identity search, or if one could even exist. Perhaps it’s like trying to look at ourselves, without a mirror.

If humanity has difficulty seeing itself as an integrated, living part of a whole Earth, maybe it is because there is nothing upon which our species-reflection can be seen. Perhaps we are like nomads on a desert, though a curious tribe who lost track of where we came from, perennially wandering back and forth across sand dunes, searching for our species identity.

However, when you look for something and you can’t see it, it might not be because it doesn’t exist. Moreover, it might not even be because we don’t know what we’re looking for: we’re looking for a species identity, we know that.

It might be because we don’t yet know how to look.

© copyright 2010, Steve Serr.