Did you see the new map of our neighborhood? Laniakea! Oh what a beautiful body! What a profound place to live! What a grand journey we’re all on together! Peeking across the cosmic scales within which we reside, we discover homes nestled within homes – body, place, and story all in one.
I work as a metamorphosis ecologist, artist, activist, and educator, and I often use body-place terminology interchangeably. It’s all about the ways our home is changing. In this article we’ll get to travel great distances without going anywhere – places astonishing in their beauty, familiar but strange, and we’ll see if any of these perspectives affect our relationships with our living Earth.
Our neighborhood is growing. Our address has a new line. Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, Local Group, Virgo Cluster, Laniakea, Universe.
We started not so long ago with songs passed down singing the spots our ancestors emerged from the earth, and as we moved we made maps, tentatively tracing lines where shore met sea, where shared or stolen properties separated. Eventually as children we took our first bike ride around the block by ourselves. We re-discover our homescapes in widening circles, to use Rilke’s phrase. So, let’s widen. We’ll come back to Earth in a moment.
Our human bodies emerge from, are fed by, and return in our own time to a medium-sized blue-brown-green planet body, tucked among the warmer inner-most members of our solar siblings, our planetary family nestled near our Orion and Pleiades star cousins on an branch between the two main massive sparkling spiral arms of our galactic body, the Milky Way. Sounds cozy, but the distances are astonishing and the speeds seem worlds away from where we sit. The earth rotates at 800 mph (for California’s latitude), and circles the sun at 66,000 mph, while the sun moves through our section of spiral at 44,000 mph, and our extraterrestrial tendrils twirl at 483,000 mph. All that zooming is us.
So now that we behold Mama Milky Way in all our magnificence, where we at? Alone in an endless nothingness? Ha! We may just be one singular splash in a vast cosmic ocean, but we’ve got shipmates. Though we haven’t polled everyone, human scientists are calling our neck of the woods The Local Group, name subject to change. About 40 galaxies count as our nearby neighbors, mostly much smaller satellite galaxies, hangers on occasionally getting pulled into our orbit, swirled up and subsumed in great galactivoric swallowings.
And then there’s Andromeda. Oh my goddess. Can’t say Andromeda’s name without “drama”. What do We of the Way of the Milk see in Andromeda? Maybe our soul mate. We are the two biggest blokes in the barrio, similar in significance and shape, though Andromeda is larger, brighter, with more mass and more stars. What’s not to like? And so it turns out we are bound together, pulled, allured, attracted by, drawn to, rushing towards each other at 245,000 miles per hour and still it will take us another 4 billion years before we arrive at one another, brush cheeks once, then once more, and then finally merge – ooh it’s soo sexy! The cosmic coupling of many lifetimes. Earth, if it is not ejected in these stellar sexcapades, or singed as our late-stage expanding sun swallows her inner planets, will witness this dynamic display splashed across our ever shifting skies. And then the great unifying dance will settle into a diffusely different elliptical galaxy, one which closes its doors on birth and houses mostly old and ancient stars. This Milkdromeda Galaxy will likely be a calmer and wiser place. And then what? We’ll all float on forever?
Here’s where we begin to behold our larger light body Laniakea.
Our Local Group village, with all its exciting galaxies plunging into other galaxies, turns out to be just a neighborhood of a larger town. The Virgo Cluster of galaxies, about 1000 of us, huddled together for warmth against the great dark. As close as we can tell (my cosmology comes from my teacher Brian Swimme, who always reinforces the ways both our knowledge and our questions continue to grow) the Universe is held together by enormous structures – long filaments of light and heat, hubs of dense community and deep deserted voids, all expanding together immeshed in underlying dark matter and invisible flows behind the light. Our spot in the scheme isn’t all that jammed. In fact we’re much nearer our expanding Local Void than we are to our nearest Local Clusters. I imagine this must be significant. If our planet played over by the heart of the city of light, and our skies were filled with familiar friends, our sense of loneliness and isolation would evaporate as easily as the oceans from our earth when our sun expands. Given the spaces between the stars in our personal present slice of sky (what we can make out behind the light pollution we’ve generated in the 140 years since electricity transformed our evenings) our place in the cosmos can feel like an old back country road no one travels down anymore. But it turns out we’re part of a much stranger story.
Turns out that when you map the directions that 100,000 galaxies around us are headed, we all flow towards the same place. You, me, our star neighbors down the star street Alpha Centauri and Sirius, our spiral sisters Milky Way and Andromeda and every single star visible to our eyes and 100,000 galaxies beyond – all of us pour towards a point in the heavens (at a convincing 1.3 million mph) called “The Great Attractor.”
What is it that’s so great and attracting over there? We’re not sure. What does it feel like to you from where you are? See, the Great Attractor is hidden behind the “Zone of Avoidance” which is the area of the sky that is obscured by the dust and light the band of the Milky Way casts in our sky, obscuring details from those degrees of space. The significance of our choice of phrases – lining up our “great attractor” within a “zone of avoidance” – I’ll leave the analysis to the cosmopsychotherapists. If we’re patient, we’ll get a better view when our sun (at its leisurely 44,000 mph) clears the pancake of our galactic disc in 70 million years and we can gaze upon our gorgeous galactic body and appreciate it for what it is. A fingertip.
Because just this autumn, September 2014, when cosmologists mapped all the flows of every fellow Great Attractee around us what emerged resembled a brilliant body of light. And so they actually came up with a compelling name for it — The Laniakea Super Cluster! Laniakea means “immeasurable heavens” in Hawaiian, which honors the first Polynesian sea voyagers pushing that endless horizon, as well as the University of Hawaii where the research was produced. Laniakea is our big big body. With the Virgo Cluster as a hand and our little Local Group as just one fingertip. Us?! Just a fingertip?! Actually, we use our fingertips for some of the most important experiences of our lives. Touching our lover’s face, cooking and eating, blogging. Fingertips are filled with our most sensitive nerve endings, they are among our most crucial perceptive tools.
And they can be useful for dancing, which is what I understand to be happening if we widen out just one more level. Look at us now. Here‘s Laniakea on the left in black, and the Perseus Pisces Super Cluster on the right in red. The Milky Way is in the center.
WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE??? The tango? Maybe undergoing macro mitosis over millennia? This means that just across the local void from us, ever so close but pulling away, is an entirely separate watershed community (the cosmologists behind this study use watershed terminology) flowing towards their own great drain, pouring towards their own special central heart of light. What is held in those hearts to drive us all in such massive movements? How aware are these two enormous astronomical beings of one another or their interactions? How aware are they of the trillions upon trillions of lights and (I’m going to go out on a limb here) lifeforms sprinkled like galactic godly glitter all along their bodies?
Like most maps this new one is of course incomplete. Boundaries tend to become blurred or battled over. As we zoom out even more there are clues of an even Greater Attractor our whole local supercluster giant group is headed towards. But let’s allow this to be as big as we get for now. Seeing ourselves as a tiny part of a gigantic galactic body is quite a humbling idea to grok just as is. Does it help if we consider Laniakea a holobiont? This is a concept developed by Lynn Margollis which has been applied to coral reefs, referring to super-organisms made up of many smaller symbiotic organisms. Can we consider each of our bigger bodies nested inside one another a singularity made up of wholes? More than the sum of our parts? Can we locate ourselves as symbionts inside of great galactic holobionts, cultivating love and light for the cosmic collection that is our unique galaxy, the starshed of our supercluster? What would it mean to align ourselves in Laniakean kinship?
Maybe the answer lies close at hand. Pouring our bodies back into our near and dear world of flesh and blood, are there opportunities to be hospitable holobionts at our particular position as persons in the stellar scheme? Indeed we seem uniquely qualified to reach across scales in every direction, not least because we’ve created a global civilization designed around our size of hands and legs and butts. Forming the world in our human image turns out to be deadly for other ways of life, but it is at least relatively helpful to humans, not least because these human bodies with which we identify so sincerely are carrying some extra weight. I mean mostly extra weight.
The diverse and particularly unique ecosystems that make up your personal microbiome vastly outnumbers what you likely consider you. On the inside and all over your skin. The microbial cells in our intestines outnumber our human cells 10 to 1. The microbial genomic material we’re walking around with in aggregate outnumbers our human body’s gene count 100 to 1. According to the microbiome wiki, there are three ecological zones across our bodies – the wet, the dry, and the oily, with the greatest diversity within the oily zones. The desert butte of our elbow fosters entirely different communities from our armpit’s rainforest. There are 8o fungal species on the heel of our foot, 60 near our toenails, 40 kinds of critters between our toes. When our food finally finishes its journey, 60% of the dry mass of our poop is our banished bacterial bodies.
The majority of our stowaways live in harmony under our hosting, though harmony is relative. We do occasionally encounter parasitic visitors – from protozoan malaria to terrifying tapeworms – who have other intentions for us. There are even parasitoidic folks – like certain wasps, ticks, and fungi – who don’t require their host to keep living, and will kill or transform the host outright to suit their own ends. Sooze Waldock, a colleague at CIIS, finds the parasitoidic model potentially reveals a great deal about our human-earth relations as well.
So how do we work in cahoots with our inner cast of characters? How can we be mutually beneficial bodymates? Who in there is helping me out? Who has other agendas? The gut is hooked directly into the brain via the vagus nerve, and affects huge sweeps of our experience, from nervousness to depression and anger, as several recent studies have shown. All of us have direct experience of the way the pull of the foods we prefer can tug on us, the dance we conduct with what we know versus what we want, how our relationship with satiation can affect our moods so quickly and overwhelmingly. However, just the act of gifting our attention to our processes around digestions can actually start to show a difference within days.
We can bring consciousness back to what we put in ourselves – the ways it all interacts with our different internal ecosystems, while also honoring the external ecosystems from whence we all come – the sun and rain and soil and toil that brought this life-continuing force to our fingertips. We can experiment with taking away and adding in our diet. We can educate ourselves on the relationships behind our meals. Fermenting our own kimchees and krauts is a fun one. Soon we may all be popping poop pills to adjust our internal flaura in healthier directions, a treatment that is showing undeniable palliative relief for a surprising number of distresses and diseases. But whether or not we’re scarfing down someone else’s dookie, we can learn to engage in conversations with our body, always coming back with curiosity and kindness – because the shadows of shame and rage and desperation also remain active in the places we hold or flow in our bodies, our personal clusters and voids, like the microbes that survive in the darkest and coldest places where you’d expect nothing could live.
Our bodies begin at a point and become just we put in them (or what is put in them by others). We grow exclusively through relationship, taking on or letting go as we learn. Our emotional holdings – losses, traumas, regrets – often stay with us. They come along for the ride as devotedly as any toe fungus or colon aomeba. By the time we reach adulthood many of us have a whole cast of characters swirling inside our psyches with varying degrees of involvement in our intentional lives, and thankfully there are many therapeutic models these days for engaging with these transpersonal archetypes. I, to use an available example, have had to work most of my life to settle my stomach, and to attend to places of pain holding in my back body. I can attach many of them to chords of my childhood, or of my recent ancestors’ experiences. I can attach other pains to whether or not I eat cheese. I filter a good deal of the question “how are you doing?” through the lens of my stomach and my back. I have developed an entire spiritual cosmology within those bodyscapes.
So who counts as me? Who does I include? The moment I die all my trillions of microorganisms will begin to eat me. If my body is planted in the earth with the most symbiotic mycological friends nearby, these mushrooms can convert the toxins I will have accumulating over this lifetime into healthy replenished fertile soil for creating new life. Stephen Jenkinson the great death and hospice guide, asks us a fundamental question – what will your life feed?
If my life merely grows more love into the world and my body merely feeds some fungus, I could be satisfied in just that. That I’m alive among the generation on Earth that gets to co-create a planetary metamorphosis? All parts of it are a gift from the universe. To honor this gift I open to every bit of it, the glorious and the ghastly, all that grows and all that falls away, and I pass the gift along. What kind of life will what dies in our time feed?
As my teacher Joanna Macy has unveiled now for several decades, the more we turn and honestly face the crisis taking hold of our warm round home, the more we find ourselves falling in love with a body thrown out of balance. How do our internal lungs keep drawing their blessed back and forth while our essential external lungs – the forests – are in flames? How can our crimson blood continue circulating when we drain the final fluids from the channels of earth?
Change is arriving everywhere. The intimacy of our human scale presses close. What about where I live? Joanna and I reside a few minutes walk from each other. Today our neighborhood is flooding – only yesterday it burned. Outside my window this morning pounds the tap swish gush of a fierce and forceful “once in a decade” California rainstorm. The garden is glowing and lush, especially for December. The San Francisco Bay – where a million mountain streams, 40% of California’s water, finally escapes to the sea through the sliver of the Golden Gate – is heaving. Unfortunately, we would need almost a dozen more superstorms like this, or 150x our average rainfall, to make up for our current “once in a millennium” drought. The dryness is integral in the blessing of the rain.
Earlier this week these same streets, which now flow like rivers glowed in flames – as protesters against police brutality set trash fires at intersections and smashed the windows of nearby banks and cellphone stores. I understand the rage vented at these symbols of oppression as an appendage to the fury over the institutionalized power (imbedded in the founding of the country) to kill, torture, and forget our black and brown bodies. Way out on the hand of Laniakea, folks still have to throw their hands up and shout “Don’t Shoot!” Or maybe, instead of dancing, Laniakea is shooting Perseus-Pisces. Is that what we imagine?
Luckily no one’s given me any control over when our galaxies will collide, or when our aquifers will empty, or when our history of racial intolerance will heal. My history of lactose intolerance is healing ok. Individually and collectively we do have choices – some real, some distractions, some slipping away or just arriving – but control remains a fatal illusion. And still, each cycle brings another opportunity to move my local relationships towards compassion, justice, and healing. We can sow the seeds of solidarity around shared concerns. We can teach each other all that we know at the time and keep learning. The lines of our bodies and our homes identify us, but they are continually co-created in the midst of our visible and invisible neighbors. When we work in cahoots with all the delicious diversities and magical multiplicities that make up our special spot, we expand the places in the universe where we will be welcomed as ourselves.