If you take a breath now, you will inhale about fifteen atoms of argon that you exhaled in a breath a year ago. Atoms from that earlier breath will have spread out from you, eventually drifting all around the world and back to you. You reconnect with yourself. You also connect with everyone else, and everything else, that exhaled a year ago. So said Harlow Shapley, an astronomer with the soul of a poet who thought deeply about his home planet.
If you are in a crowded room you will soon be inhaling atoms exhaled by all the others in the room, and they yours. You exchange your substance with them. We are immersed in an ocean of air that connects us intimately, with each other and with all other living things.
Argon is chemically inert, so it just goes in and out of our lungs, but it is instructive to follow it in this way. Oxygen and carbon bind into us and stay longer, but ultimately those atoms also are released and made available to all other organisms. So it has been for aeons.
Shapley wrote, in Beyond the Observatory, ‘Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Ghandi breathed in his long life. Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper, from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta, and from the recitations of the classic poets. … Our next breaths, yours and mine, will sample the snorts, sighs, bellows, shrieks, cheers and spoken prayers of the prehistoric and historic past.’
The Romans called air and breath spiritus, from which we get spirit, respire, inspire, aspire, expire.
The sky has just turned ugly brown and the trees across the street are dimmed. The world has dimmed. The wind has changed and our little town is once again under threat, this time from the big fire to our east. Two weeks ago it was a fire to the west, now mercifully quiet, thanks to great efforts by volunteers.
The fire has come up the escarpment, against the prevailing wind, burning eucalyptus and rain forest indiscriminately. The big-city TV would rabbit on about the air quality. We can recite the numbers, 140,000 hectares, so many structures, so many homes. Lives now lost. It is tragic indeed.
But it is also bigger than that, bigger than our immediate human concerns, though there is no separation. It starts from the small. There are dasyurus. There are quolls and koalas. Mountain pepper. Agile antechinus. Greater glider. Platypus. Araluen gum. Monga bitter pea. Corang River cypress. Haswell’s toadlet. Spotted grass frog. Black rock skink. Blue-tongue lizard. Lace monitor. Red-bellied black snake. Barking owl. Gang gang cockatoo. Pink robin. Rufous fantail.
You will have heard of some of those, and not heard of others, nor of many more not mentioned here. We don’t even know what we destroy, in our careless occupation of this delicate, exceptional, fastidious, demanding, resilient, brutal land. Some know of course, and know how to live more sensibly, but we mostly don’t listen to them.
So I breathe in the golden-tipped bat, Bell’s Creek Zieria, whistling tree frog, jacky lizard and spotted quail-thrush as they blow by our house, dismembered, disaggregated, reduced to their component atoms, no longer of the living world, turning the trees blue, the sky earthy brown and the sun blood-red.
Also disaggregated is the ecosystem into which they were woven. Our modern market-consumerist culture is not so good with ecosystems, natural or human. We’ve been so conditioned into individuality, reductionism, selfishness that we undervalue or forget about connection and mutual dependence.
We are intimately connected with every other living thing on the planet. All the air we breathe, all the food we eat, all the clean water we drink comes to us courtesy of other living beings. As they live, so can we. Their health is our health. If they die, we die.
So we are diminished as vast stretches of our nearby forest are consumed. Some of it will grow back, but not all. Our ancient planetary biosphere cannot withstand the scale of our assaults upon it. It is wilting.
We are creating a great exhalation. The abused land exhales its water, its carbon and myriad other ingredients. They float around the planet in our ocean of air. They block the heat that would otherwise escape into space and cool our fever.
As we smash temperature records, sometimes by a degree or more at a time, perhaps it is easier to imagine the invisible blanket over our sweltering continent. It is hard to imagine on a desert winter’s night, stars icily sparkling, as we feel the heat of day departing into the dark sky. But the escape is measured. It only occurs at a certain rate, a rate we are reducing. Now in summer the air gets so hot it can drift across the whole continent and still be scorching.
Creatures will be inhaling our foul breath for millennia after we are forced to stop, one way or another. They will soak back the essence, the spirit of those that came long before and are no more. They will heal the fevered Earth. Perhaps some of our descendants will understand what they are a part of, and how to be within that whole, so that all may remain healthy and thriving into an indefinite future.