For me, one of the most striking aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is how the most important and powerful symbol of life, the air we breathe, has also become a suspicious carrier of the deadly virus. We now wear face masks to protect us from an enemy that we think may enter into our body system through the very symbol of life itself, the air. And yet, one of the most glaring signs of our disconnect from nature is our neglect of the air we breathe. In the world of modernity, the air has become a forgotten dump site for a host of gaseous effluents, radiations, and industrial pollutants. We have totally ignored the importance of the quality of the air we breathe and its significance to life. Instead, our fascination is elsewhere: television, mobile phones, iPods, iPads, computers, atomic bombs, social media, newspapers, all of which so readily grab our senses and mould our participation with the world.
COVID-19 is calling our attention to the changes happening in the air itself. The changing atmosphere, global warming and climate change, deforestation, destruction of our ecosystems, human encroachment into animal habitats, genetic modification of food, gas flaring etc reflect our massive dissociation from our integral world.
The air is the element that keeps us alive, and without which, nothing happens. By denying that birds and animals have their own form of language, we cut ourselves off from the deep meanings of our words, severing language from that which supports it. We inhabit a world where everyone is talking, and no one is listening. Communication then becomes a shouting game rather than a listening interaction. No wonder we find it so hard to communicate even amongst ourselves!
Our health, our life, our future, depends on the quality of the air around us. The rich, the poor, the sick, the healthy, black people, white people, we all breathe the same air. There is no separate air for different categories of people. At the end of the day, what we put into the air will come back to us, either to purify us or poison us.
It is the air that most directly envelops us. The air is the element we are most directly in touch with. Without air, none of us can survive more than a few minutes. As we busy ourselves rushing to meet the next appointment and preparing to attend the following meeting or planning for a future wedding or anniversary, we must not forget that we do all these because the air is there. Without air, we are nothing. Everything else is illusory.
The air is the real deal.
(Additional writing by Samuel Phillips)
We can try to play down the reality of the words of Father Anselm Adodo all we like, but the truth will always remain that whatsoever we sowed and are still sowing in our air, we are reaping and will continue to reap.
I remember going for a forest walk sometime ago somewhere in Nairobi. The place is a well-known wellness center, which uses the connection to nature as a remedy. The session started with regular exercises for the body, a short talk about the issues going on in our society and then ended with main session which was the forest walk. Prior to that time, I had not heard of forest walking or forest bathing, especially as it concerns natural healing. It happens that this particular forest we went for the walk in was an untouched forest with mainly indigenous trees. As you step into that forest, you instantly feel the difference between the normal air you breathe everywhere else and the one you start to breathe in this forest. It was so refreshing and therapeutic. The forest therapy instructor shared a few pieces of information about one of the healthy chemicals that forest trees and plants release into the environment called Phytoncides. Never heard of that name before?
Phytoncides are substances emitted by plants & trees and the term generally means the aroma of the forest. “Phyton” means “plant” in Latin, and “cide” means to exterminate. Phytoncides are produced to help plants & trees protect themselves from harmful insects and germs. They have antibacterial and antifungal qualities, which help plants to fight diseases. When people breathe these chemicals in, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumor and virus-infected cells in our bodies. Japanese researchers are currently exploring whether exposure to forests can help prevent certain kinds of cancer. The word, which means “exterminated by the plant”, was coined in 1928 by Dr. Boris P. Tokin, a Russian biochemist from Leningrad University. He found that some plants give off very active substances which prevent them from rotting or being eaten by some insects and animals.
Our forest therapy instructor went on to say that because of the pollution that has been allowed in our cities, townships and the various machines and manufacturing activities, the brain of man is unconsciously protecting man by lowering how much air we take in, in such polluted environments. That is, the brain, in trying to protect man from the poisonous effects of polluted air, triggers the lungs to take in less air and by that the body lacks enough oxygen. And because the air we breathe is vital to our survival and the correct working of the body, a walk in the forest or a forest bathing experience will help to restore proper intake of oxygen.
The horror that awaits us
Can we afford to downplay the horror that awaits us if we continue to undermine the fact that we have not been responsible for a cleaner and greener environment? No we can’t. We have allowed capitalism and the quest for quick money to make us turn our backs on the very source of life on earth. We have reduced earth to a money making machine which dispenses whatever we want at the push of a button, without paying attention to the fact that our earth is a huge living and breathing life venting machine and when pushed to the brink of danger, will recycle itself and us included.
The foolishness of taking for granted the breath of God
Sometimes I think that we humans are way more stupid than we give ourselves credit for. You read right. World leaders like to gather at UN meetings telling tales of a never ending story of how climate change is destroying the world and the environment, but won’t tell their capitalist businessmen to stop the unhealthy practices that put the environment in danger. But the question remains, is it really the issue of climate change or the issue of the irresponsible humans living on planet earth? I think the latter is the case. We are our own problem and not the environment. For example, a government in Afrika complains about its citizens dying of cancer and diseases that are connected to wrong diets and genetically altered foods, and comes up with the advice that people should stop eating processed foods. But I am like, who gave the permission that allowed the GMO seedlings from Monsanto that are creating the lifeless foods that Afrikans are eating? Who gave license to the grocery stores and the fast-food restaurants that are selling death to people instead of life? The very same governments which are blinded by taxes, levies, licenses that such importations and sales bring.
Let me bring your attention to something. The air we breathe is not just oxygen as we called it in science; it is the natural symbol of the breath of God. It is the reality of as it is in heaven, so it is here on earth. The breath of God keeps all things alive on earth and in heaven. Trees, animals, birds of the air, things in the waters all understand this reality… the only exception is man, who was made in the image of God. And that too is one of our many foolishnesses.
We must go back to taking care of the earth again. For if we plant poison in our farms and call it modern agriculture, we certainly will reap death. If we pollute our air with poison, we will reap the very reward for it. That the air became cleaner globally during this season of lockdown shows you where the problem has been. It has been with man and his unhealthy activities. We must act now in defense of the air and just maybe we will live longer on this beautiful planet we call home.
What's Your Reaction?
Fr. Anselm Adodo is a catholic priest and director of one of Africa’s largest phytomedicine company, called paxherbals, and Director of Pax Centre for Integral Research and Development. His most recent books include ‘The Idea of the Communiversity’ (Beacon academic, 2019), and ‘Healing Plants of Nigeria’ (Routledge, 2020). Anselm is a visiting lecturer at Nigeria’s premier University of Ibadan, Nigeria, a Fellow of the Nigeria society of Botanists and an adjunct research fellow of Nigeria Institute of medical Research.