“The world is an entwined place.” It’s one of the most evocative, and most profound, sentences I’ve ever heard. It comes from Dr. Teresa Ryan, of the Gitlan tribe of Tsimshian Nation of the Pacific Northwest coast. To name the world “an entwined place” goes to the heart of all our current crises, from climate change to a pandemic, because all these troubles are fed by a worldview that emphasizes separateness.
If the world is an entwined place, then acting as if we are separate from others departs from reality; it is an illness, a malady. And the remedy for our ills will be found by remembering that we are connected and by acting with care for each other. “We can’t be separated from each other,” Teresa Ryan adds. “The world is an entwined place.”
Dr. Teresa Ryan is a fisheries scientist who works with Dr. Suzanne Simard in the forests of the Pacific Northwest to study the mycorrhizal network, the dense weave of tiny fungal threads running underground, linking the roots of trees and plants in the forest with one another. Suzanne Simard is the forest ecologist who proved that this web of fungal connections allows the trees and plants to communicate and share resources with each other. They send nutrients and water to one another. Sick or stressed trees send warnings that lead their neighbors to fire up protective enzymes. The trees take care of one another in a network of relationships, which means that the forest as a whole is acting with a united wisdom. In her book Finding the Mother Tree, which just came out this year, Suzanne tells the powerful story of how she worked for decades to demonstrate these communications among the trees—and how her research is beginning to change hearts and minds in the forestry world.
Teresa Ryan joined her in mapping—physically mapping—a small piece of this fungal network. Their maps revealed the existence of Mother Trees, older trees sharing nutrients and water with younger trees, acting like mothers because they recognize their own offspring and send more of the goodies to them than to strangers. When Suzanne was getting worn down by the dismissive reactions of Western scientists to the idea that trees cooperate with each other, Teresa offered an Indigenous view for support. “Well, our worldview is that we are part of these ecosystems,” Teresa told Suzanne. “We are all connected together. The world is an entwined place.”
I heard about their conversation during Suzanne’s recent interview with Krista Tippett at On Being. It’s a wonderful program, and I’ll put a link to it and also to some talks by Teresa Ryan on my website, next to the transcript.
When Teresa says, “The world is an entwined place,” she is getting to the root of the problem—as it were. At our roots, we are all connected. The nature of reality is to be linked to all others.
But being connected through a web of relationships is not the worldview of industrialized society. In the reigning worldview, we are all separate entities battling it out to survive in a hostile environment.
That old belief in a dog-eat-dog world is changing now, thank goodness, but it’s still powerful enough that scientists who depart from it, like Suzanne Simard or Teresa Ryan, get dismissed for their efforts. The doctrine of separateness gripped our imaginations for several hundred years, and it’s still powerful enough to lead people to carry on our lives as if climate change won’t reach us, even while extreme weather is causing floods and drowning at one coast, and drought is causing fires and smoke on the other. And the doctrine of separateness is powerful enough that even in the middle of a pandemic, when 1 out of 500 people have died in this country alone and millions of families will never be the same, some people even ridicule the suffering of others.
To say, as Teresa Ryan does, that “the world is an entwined place” is to assert a different reality. In this worldview, reality is made of relationships, and we’re all tied together in intimate connection. Teresa says, “This concept of oneness is universal in Indigenous cultures.” In her language, she adds, the people express it this way: we are “of one heart.”
If Indigenous cultures know that we are of one heart, they also know that remembering this doesn’t always come easy. It’s a practice. It’s something we have to keep reminding ourselves of. Because forgetting it lies at the bottom of all our ills. Forgetting we are connected chills the heart. It leads to all the wrongs we do to one another and to the beings of the Earth. When the heart is chilly, greed becomes easy. Cruelty is possible. When we forget connection, we disrupt the climate and harm the life of the sea and pollute the gift of water. Dumping plastic waste that no other organism can eat is a true sign of forgetting. So is extreme inequality, where some have way too much while others struggle. Every one of the ills that plagues us right now traces back to forgetting we are in relationship with all others. Forgetting we belong to an entwined Earth.
Nearly a decade ago, when I had just taken up the meditative practice of spirit journeys, I was also learning about the network of fungal threads hidden away under the forest floor. During that time, while my feet felt wobbly on a new spiritual path, I was shown in meditation that this web of mycelium was a good image to use if I found myself losing faith. It would help me remember that there is more going on in the world than meets the eye. It could remind me of all the unseen connections, all the messages following hidden pathways, all the sharing happening behind the scenes in places we can’t see with our physical eyes. I hadn’t heard of Suzanne Simard or Teresa Ryan yet, but I was being reminded that, like trees in a forest, each of us is intimately connected, through unseen pathways, to all others.
During later spirit journeys I learned that mycelium was a good metaphor for Spirit in general—that Spirit might be like a vast network of lighted threads, dense and silky, flowing between each of us and all others. And, like the filaments of mycelium underground, the threads that connect us all are not visible to ordinary sight. We have to remind ourselves they are there. We may have to get a little quieter than usual to perceive them. We have to look through the eyes of the heart.
When I come into that place of the heart, those silken threads of connection become more palpable. It’s easier to feel their power, their tensile strength linking each to each. It’s easier to imagine their twinkling traces, like tiny flashes of communication traveling through a neural network. It’s easier to remember how connected we all are.
But, as I say, it’s a practice. It takes a shift in attention to remember that we are all entwined. Because the everyday world is where we look most separate—all of us running around in our separate skins, doing our separate things, our individual, amazing things. Each human, each tree, each cloud, each culture, each species making its own contribution, offering its own gift, adding its own unique steps to this spectacular dance.
In the physical world we honor separateness—as we should! Because we need all these amazing colors and shapes and flavors. Each one of us is a gift, and we need us all. And we need every one of us being different.
But if we don’t stop to remember connections, we’re going to miss the wondrous but invisible threads linking us to all others. Like walking in a forest and admiring each individual tree, we will be tempted to think that the bark and leaves before us tell the whole story of the forest. And we will miss the vast communicating network hidden beneath our feet, knitting all the trees into a community.
I recently came across a very moving story in a book by Dr. Shawn Wilson, of the Opaskwayak Cree people from northern Manitoba. In his book Research Is Ceremony, Shawn Wilson tells the story of a vision or dream that came to him one night while he was camping at Bear Butte in South Dakota, a place that is sacred to Native North Americans.
At some point in the night, Shawn saw himself as a single point of light in a dark void. As he watched, another point of light came into being. His point of light developed a relationship with the other so that a tiny thread connected them. As he watched, other points of light came into being along with their threads and connections. Faster and faster the points of light appeared, making more and more webs of connection. When the darkness was thick with points of light and their webs, he saw that some of the webs were coalescing into bodies. More webs formed, making up more bodies, so that each body was made up of webs and webs of connections. The visible world began to come into focus, each body and each feature of the world fashioned by these threads and lights of connection.
In describing it later, Shawn wrote,
Every individual thing that you see around you is really just a huge knot—a point where thousands and millions of relationships come together. These relationships come to you from the past, from the present and from your future. This is what surrounds us, and what forms us, our world, our cosmos and our reality. We could not be without being in relationship with everything that surrounds us and is within us. Our reality . . . is the relationships.
The experience of this vision was a powerful one for him. Even after many years had passed, he wrote,
I feel a sense of mystery, and of, I don’t know, belonging? Words cannot adequately convey it.
Receiving such a glimpse of connection is a moving experience. It opens and softens the heart. It reminds a person that what we see in the everyday world is not all there is. It sends us a gift of mystery and wonder and awe. It connects us back up to a reality that we may have forgotten. It helps us remember that we belong. It transports us beyond ourselves and at the same time settles us again more firmly in our own skin. It stitches visible and invisible together, helping us experience a deeper unity. It reawakens our awareness of connection, our awareness of Spirit.
This is what all authentic spiritual practices and ceremonies do for people—help us remember what we tend to forget. They give us eyes to see what we cannot see so easily in everyday life—how connection lies at the heart of reality. They remind us that living in accord with reality means living from a sense of belonging and of knowing that all others belong too. Authentic spiritual practices and rituals remind us, again and again, to treat others with respect not just because it makes life easier but also because this is aligned with the architecture of the universe. These practices help us remember to live with humility in the face of this Great Mystery of connection and to dwell in gratitude and generosity toward others because we have been so generously provided for by this bountiful Earth.
Many kinds of practices, not just overtly spiritual ones, can open the heart. Playing with children or caring for a loved one or cuddling with a cat or dog—all can soften the heart. For some people, music is the big heart opener. For others it might be sitting in a forest or swimming in the ocean or tracing the bright wings of birds through binoculars. Whatever the practice, if it helps to warm up the heart, it is leading toward reality itself—toward the reality of connection.
But, again, because this web lies just out of sight, it takes being intentional about it to keep it in view. It takes renewing that shift in awareness on a regular basis. It takes metaphorically walking in the forest and kneeling down to place our hands in the earth, digging down, down, down, until, with the eyes of the heart, we can see again that tangled mat of mycelium threads and touch it and be reminded again that the web of connection is still there, still growing, still weaving the world together, still humming with vitality and mystery and joy.
Wishing for each one that we find our own best ways of being renewed in spirit and dwelling in awareness of the shining web that connects us all.
For digging deeper
Krista Tippett spoke with Suzanne Simard at On Being on Sept. 9, 2021, and their conversation is called “Forests Are Wired for Wisdom.” Suzanne’s 2021 book is Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.
Teresa Ryan (Gitlan tribe of the Tsimshian Nation) gave an inspiring Bioneers talk in 2017 called “How Trees Communicate.” Her people’s understanding that we are all “of one heart” comes from that talk. She also spoke at TEDxBerkeley in 2018 on “Ancestral Legacy of Nature’s Connections,” showing how traditional Tsimshian practices resonate with Western science.
The fungal network below ground in a forest resembles a neural network and works in similar ways, even down to running similar amino acids along its threads, as Suzanne Simard explains in her interview with Krista Tippett. For a diagram of a Mother Tree map, see this page at The Mother Tree Project. For a visual mapping of a neural network, see the story of the little black mouse: Katie M. Palmer, “The Nameless Mouse Behind the Largest-Ever Neural Network,” Wired, March 28, 2016.
Shawn Wilson (Opaskwayak Cree) wrote about the vision that came to him of the universe as webs of connection in Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods (2008), 75–76. He also offered a lecture on “Research Is Ceremony” touching on themes of societal illness, capitalism, and the spirit in all things.