The breathing earth

Extract from Chapter 11: The Air Element

There is a sense in which the Earth does literally breathe. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry said in his classic work of children’s fiction, The Little Prince, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Imagination, as we’ve seen, can help us to visualize what is invisible to our physical senses, but sometimes to see the essential you need satellites and supercomputers. Scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, using data from the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) satellite, have made visible the planet’s respiratory cycle by imaging the extent of photosynthesis in both the oceans and over land. The work of photosynthesis is visualized as bands of color, pulsating in rhythm with the seasons. The resulting images provide a stunning view of the earth breathing, showing the expansion and contraction of photosynthesis over a period of years and allowing us to appreciate the Earth as a living organism.

I look again and again with wonder upon these animations, where dry data representing millions of measurements are translated into beautiful bands of shifting color over the oceans and the land. I see something that resembles a breathing child. The southern hemisphere is like the child’s belly, while the northern is like the chest. The flowing patterns in each hemisphere differ, but move synchronously, one rising as the other falls. I feel a sense of tenderness and a powerful desire to protect this small sphere. These animations take us beyond the capabilities of our unaided senses, allowing us to see patterns too subtle and taking place on too long a timescale for even an astronaut in space to discern them with the naked eye. And watching these images, there comes a sense of belonging. If the earth is seen as a breathing organism, then you and I are the cells in its body.

In losing my sense of myself as a separate being, I find myself to be something grander. I find myself to be part of a living global system of miraculous complexity, where water becomes air, where air becomes living creature, where living creature becomes rock, where rock again becomes air. I find myself to be part of an astonishingly complex web of mutual dependencies powerful enough to shape the destiny of an entire planet, powerful enough to create an atmosphere and separate—as the god Enlil did—heaven and earth. I find that I am Gaia, and Oceanus, and Enlil. In losing my self of myself as separate I am not diminished, but augmented. I am augmented physically—seeing myself as part of a greater whole—and also filled with an expansive sense of wonder, and appreciation, and compassion.

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