I recently had the good fortune to kick back on an escarpment and watch whirlpools and whitecaps form in Skookumchuck Narrows, the rapids at the mouth of Sechelt Inlet. It was quite a sight-second only to Norway's Saltstraumen as the fastest saltwater tidal rapids in the world. Over 200 billion gallons of water a day rush through the narrows, sometimes at the speed of galloping horses.
When it comes to water, the distinction between one part and another is arbitrary and momentary. In Skookumchuck Narrows the flow and counterflow merge and mingle in an aquatic improv show sponsored by the gravitational tug of Earth and moon.
Sights of rushing rivers and other flowing bodies of water have inspired curious minds for thousands of years, from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus ("You can't step in the same river twice") to the Taoist sage Lao-Tzu ("Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it"). The flow of H2O has a way of making you think - in a relaxed, meditative way.
The saltwater percentage of our bodies is the same as the oceans, an echo of our animal origins in the sea. We're oceans ourselves, each and every one of us. From the crib to the coffin, we slosh about with a host of non-human microorganisms. In fact, only a tenth of the cells in your body are genetically "you." Trillions of bacteria and fungi and their attendant viruses constitute the other ninety percent. Yet because the cells are so small, they constitute only five percent of your body weight.
There are roughly 4,000 species of bacteria in the intestine alone, where they play a major role in digestion and the synthesizing vitamins and anti-inflammatory compounds. You need these microscopic fellow travellers at least as much as they need you.
The same dynamic applies for many other species. To give just one remarkable example, the Hawaiian bobtail squid hunts thanks to headlights supplied by a bacterium called Vibrio fischeri. The microbes live in a sac in the squids' mantles and, when their numbers are high enough, they glow through bioluminescence.
When the sea's surface is painted with moonlight, the bobtail squid's silhouette disappears to its undersea prey below, thanks to the glowing microbes. "To get it just right, sensors on the squid's back gauge the strength of moonlight, with filters adjusting the light emitted from the sacs," observes Tess Shellard in The Guardian. It's a joint evolutionary adaptation by invertebrates and microbes, anticipating stealth cloaking technology by millions of years.
Animals, plants and insects and microbes regularly engage in small miracles of symbiosis and cross-species collectivism. The scientific understanding of this phenomenon is beginning to shade into other disciplines, particularly economics.
A decade ago scientists determined microorganisms purify New York City's water supply as the water percolates through the soil of the Catskills. Rather than spend $4 billion on a water treatment plant, the city earmarked $660 million for preserving the area's watershed in good shape.
Some economists attach financial figures to what they call "ecosystem services" including hydration, soil formation, pollination, food and timber production, and climate regulation. One estimate for global ecosystem services came to $33 trillion. From one perspective, this branch of econometrics represents intellectual progress. From another perspective, it's sophisticated nonsense. Nature's true value is incalculable; the market economy is embedded in the biosphere, not the other way around.
I wouldn't know where someone would begin in estimating the market value of Skookumchuck Narrows, or any other natural wonder. But considering how every living thing is involved with every other living thing in ways both direct and indirect-like the whirlpools in the narrows-its obvious the "worth" of the environment extends beyond linear market indices, and outside our grasping, griping, selves.
And what is a "self", exactly? Something fluid and hard to pin down. You and I are like whirlpools: vortices through which matter and energy funnels for about three quarters of a century before disappearing back into the universal flow.
Over two thousand years ago, Lao-Tzu wrote, "Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong."