All Good Things Come From Stillness
by Joseph Cornell
Once, while camping in the Cascade Mountains, I entered a small subalpine valley filled with shallow, bubbling streams and wildflowers. The feeling of bliss in the valley was so palpable, so thrilling, that when it was time to leave I had to drag myself away. John Muir continuously experienced a joyous, benign presence in wild nature. He disagreed with advocates of Darwin’s evolutionary theory who emphasized only nature’s strife and competitiveness. He would also disagree with the sentiment expressed by a present-day scientist: “When we look at nature, we are only looking at the survivors.”
Far from such a “survival of the fittest” view, forest ecologists have discovered that plants don’t behave as individuals competing with one another. Trees are united with other trees through their root system underground and share nutrients depending on which tree most needs them. In one experiment researchers draped shaded cloth completely over one tree so that it couldn’t produce food from sunlight. The scientists discovered that through a spidery network of mycelia, or living fungi cells, nearby trees gave the shaded tree the nutrients it needed.
The nineteenth-century Russian scientist, Peter Kropotkin, eagerly sought in eastern Siberia proof of evolution’s “survival of the fittest” premise. To his surprise, the young scientist discovered that the most successful animals weren’t the most competitive ones, but those who coped with the harsh environment primarily through cooperative behavior. Applying his Siberian experience to humans, Kropotkin asked rhetorically, “Who is the fittest: those who are continually at war with one another, or those who support one another?” Nearly every traditional society operates on the basis of highly cooperative relationships; in most traditional cultures over-competiveness is viewed as a sign of insanity.
Once a class of Navajo children taught their Anglo-American teacher a valuable lesson in human relations. During the teacher’s first week at their school, he asked one of the Navajo students to answer a simple question. The young boy couldn’t answer correctly, so the teacher asked if anyone else knew the answer. The other Navajo children stared straight ahead and wouldn’t respond.
Because he felt that most of the students knew the answer, the teacher was puzzled by their silence. Later, the teacher learned why no one had raised his hand: the young Navajos didn’t want their classmate to lose face. Their friend’s well-being and self-confidence were far more important to them than impressing the teacher.