Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Biosphere's Work Is Never Done

A friend with a PhD from Harvard and a toddler on her hip told me recently that she struggles, these days, to be 'productive.'

What she meant, I think, was that she struggles to make headway on the kinds of work that can be finished, the work that sits there on its own and needs no tending once it is complete, like the contract signed, the book published, the problem solved. The kind of work you don't have to do all over again the next day or the next season.

Anyone who has ever cared for another person, or for a farm, or a household knows that such tasks are clearly work. They take real time and burn real energy, but they are never really 'done.' The empty sink fills again with dirty dishes, the weeds invade the tended row. Even the milestones of this sort of work, the child's first word, or the first ripe tomato, aren't really end points, just places along the way, part of the beat, the rhythm of the work.

Real work it may be, but it is also, in this culture, often invisible work. The people who do it by choice or because they have no choice often earn less money, and have lower status.

Still for most of the Earth's history, all there has been is the kind of work that is never done, the work of keeping things going. That's the work of every organ and every cell of your body, after all. Your liver never finishes its work of detoxifying your blood; the work of your heart is undone eighty times each minute.

Whole assemblages of beings do this kind of work as well – flocks of tiny algae, floating in the sea absorbing carbon dioxide, hillsides of stately trees breathing out oxygen.

I think the blindness of our culture to this whole universe of maintenance work, the blindness that leads us to discount the work of cleaning ladies and bus drivers and and even our own care-giving, helps explain how we could have pushed the Earth's climate regulating systems so far past their limits.

It is as though we've been living in a house where for years and years our dirty dishes have always been whisked away to be washed by someone we've never really noticed. We never really had to notice, the system functioned so smoothly. But now we find dirty dishes are accumulating in the sink, and we realize it has something to do with our very fun and crowded party which is now generating more dishes than whoever it is who has been washing them can keep up with.

The hidden blessing in the sinkfull of dirty dishes is that they have the potential to get our attention, they might cause us to look up from the party and notice the tired looking woman with the apron on. They might make us gulp, amazed to discover that she's been here all along, working away. They might inspire us to try to help her; they might inspire us to get to know her.

If rising carbon dioxide levels really get our attention, that's what they have the potential to do, to connect us with the life pulse of the planet, the life pulse that has been cradling us all along. They give us a chance to offer our gratitude and begin to know the debt we owe.

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