Earth Day is April 22nd this year. While the world’s human population continues to navigate a deadly pandemic, the rest of the earth doesn’t care much about Covid 19; the flowers and birds in my backyard don’t seem to be worried. Just another rogue piece of DNA on a planet teaming with DNA.
In April, 2020, with over 100,000 casualties from Covid 19, it is more than tempting for us humans to think of viruses as bad things; sometimes they are. But, sometimes they’re not. It turns out that if you remember what you ate this morning, it’s because of a virus.
In a 2018 article that was first published by Inverse, the protein that is responsible for our capacity for memory—something called the ARC protein—is rather extraordinary. To make a long story short and to make a lot of long words less long (and risking imprecision), the ARC protein, unlike any other protein that we know, can actually transfer its DNA into a neighboring cell. Which, as you many know by now, is exactly how viruses replicate.
It turns out that the ARC protein is, in fact, the “offspring” of a virus/mammal collaboration that happened 350 – 400 million years ago. Somehow, a great granddaddy of what we call retroviruses made its way into a mammal that then started remembering what she had for breakfast. Then, over a lot of evolutionary time, enough mammal to mammal contact occurred to spread the memory pill in one form or another. Memory went viral, if you will.
In many ways, memory is a big part of what makes human beings human. Functionally, it’s pretty tough to get by without a memory; just ask anyone caring for someone whose memory has been decimated by Alzheimer’s. Its memory that allows us to recount experiences, share stories, and learn. There would be no speech, no writing, no art, and no religion, except for memory. Indeed, it’s probably impossible to talk about the evolution of the human species without the ARC protein.
So, again, in 2020, it’s easy to demonize viruses, except that we are so indebted.
What does this have to do with Earth Day? It’s yet another example of the intimate relationship between us and the earth. No, it’s more than that. There is no “us” apart from the earth. Whatever you might believe about how God created the universe, the data left for us to read shows we are not just the product of evolutionary forces, but we are, in a very real way, an amalgam of earthy material and close encounters. (For another wild ride about our origins and our similar debt to bacteria, see mitochondria.)
The earth is not only our mother, she is us. We are a species that absorbs Vitamin D from above (sunlight) and Vitamin B12 from below (dirt); we exchange gases with trees and seaweed (CO2 for O2). Every seven years, every cell in our body is replaced by whatever it is we put into our mouths and nostrils. Our bodies are an organized conglomeration of earth gifts, managed by metabolic forces we have little control over. We are earthlings, not because we live on earth but because we are the earth. Parenthetically, if one ever needed a reason to believe in the holy, the divine, the miraculous, don’t look for the supernatural; just look at the super natural.
In April, 2020, as we huddle in place, hoping to protect our most vulnerable sisters and brothers from the devastation of a dangerous illness, we must also consider when we can and soon, how to act as determinedly in the name of the protection of our earth-self. We must consider how to tend to our planet, not so she will survive (she will, long after we are gone), but so that we can survive and thrive. In the same way a farmer tends the fertility of the fields to guarantee not only a future harvest but a future for her/his children, we must consider every decision through the lens of protecting what is precious, restoring what has been damaged, and rethinking our lives through the lens of caring for who we all are: an emergence of earth from earth, life from life, water bodies from a water planet, love incarnate from love incarnate from love beyond knowing.