Heroes of the Small World, by Mary Ellen Hannibal

I’m a journalist and an author, and I write mostly about science and the environment. My career has been somewhat roundabout, but like journeys do, mine has come full circle. My journey starts right here in East Hampton.

When I was growing up, great writers abounded in the community, and I wanted to be one. It was more the idea of the writers and their lives that appealed to me than their actual work, to be honest. The prominent writers here when I was a kid were very macho, focused on war stories and gangsters, and I was more inclined toward Virginia Woolf and Henry James. 

I would take long, long walks on the beach, in every season, in the rain and snow, and I would let my mind unfurl long narratives of observation and feeling. I was so sad, I was so happy, I longed for so much. I didn’t even know what I was longing for, and I felt like “real” life was elsewhere, somewhere I was headed to once I graduated from high school and went to college. 

Yet I was immersed in this beautiful place. After an hour or two of walking, the words in my mind ceased. And I would just keep on, now marking pace with the geese honking overhead in the fall, then with the brief electric sunset on the winter beach. In the spring, everything everywhere was green and yearning, not just me. And finally came the great apotheosis of summer. Now I subsumed myself in the ocean, bobbing along in its gigantic currents and waves, at one with the essential rhythm of nature. 

Living with and in this place, I experienced the poem without words that is the essential rhythm of nature.

When I was in my early 20s, I lived in New York City and worked at Esquire magazine. The job was mostly answering phones, making lunch reservations for other people, and typing manuscripts. The great writer in me was not exactly getting unleashed. Everything still felt like it was going to happen in the future and wasn’t happening now. Out of the blue a college friend gave me tickets to hear Joseph Campbell give a series of three lectures. Campbell was a famous public intellectual, the author of a book called “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” He was sort of like a cross between the Dalai Lama and the guy who wrote “The 4-Hour Workweek.” He had a spiritual message, but he also had a neat plan for a more efficient life full of more of what you want in it. 

Campbell explained that all mythologies, all over the world, have the same pattern. From Buddha to Jesus Christ, all the world’s stories essentially have the same plot, which he called the “hero’s journey.” And he told the audience, as I listened with great attention, that we were all on a hero’s journey. He told us to follow our bliss, the things we loved most to do. “Follow your bliss,” Campbell said, “and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

I ended up featuring Campbell and the hero’s journey in my recent book, “Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction.” Campbell himself was a citizen scientist. The term generally refers to a regular person without a Ph.D. who contributes to scientific research. Though he essentially invented a field of knowledge and taught at Sarah Lawrence College for nearly 40 years, Campbell did not have a Ph.D. 

So how did he come to do this? In his 20s, Campbell embarked on his own hero’s journey, part of which involved an expedition to Sitka, Alaska. Campbell helped collect specimens on that journey — starfish (now called sea stars), crabs, sea anemones, and other creatures that live in the intertidal, the habitat right off the coast of Alaska. 

One of the big citizen science projects I participate in and write about is tide-pool monitoring in California. Today we’re trying to figure out something called a sea star wasting syndrome. All up and down the entire West Coast, sea stars have virtually disappeared. It is the biggest marine die-off in human history. Nobody knows exactly why it’s happening, though it is very likely the result of human impacts.

Later in his life Campbell said that this expedition was “the start of it all,” when he began to understand that “myth is nature talking.” He told us that story itself is a key to fulfillment, that it is important that we feel part of a meaningful narrative. 

Today, however, we see that as humans have pursued their individual destinies and heroic journeys, another, bigger story has been unfolding at the same time. Now it is the specimens that we must listen to. They tell us sea stars were abundant in Sitka in the 1930s. They are almost completely absent from the place now. The sea stars are having their heroic journey terminated. 

One way Campbell described the hero’s journey is as a solar cycle. Undoubtedly his experience in the tide pools influenced this idea, because the life of the creatures in the tide pool is intimately twined with the cycles of the sun and the moon. They literally follow the essential rhythm of nature, while Campbell said humans figuratively follow it. The sun comes up; the hero goes out. The sun travels across the sky; the hero has adventures. The sun sets and night comes; the hero is lost, in danger of dying. In this dark time of doubt and unconsciousness, a new awareness is born in the hero. The hero gets help. The sun rises again, and the hero takes this new information he’s realized to his tribe.

As I was writing my book, which is focused on biodiversity loss, how and why it is happening and what we can do about it, I began to realize that actually, our problems with nature stem from our misalignment with the solar cycle. The sun, of course, powers all life on earth. Photosynthesizing plants make food at the bottom of the food chain, which forms the basis for all the biotic interactions that create this temperate environment that is so amenable to human life. We can’t live without those interactions among all the other creatures that are our co-travelers on this journey of life. 

Every day, photosynthesis powers the food chain that supports all the bodies on the earth. But today, humans are using more than photosynthesis provides. How are we doing that? By utilizing the photosynthesis of yesterday, oil that is made of the decomposed and compressed bodies of plants and animals that died a long time ago. You know the problems that we have because of our use of oil. We are thwacking the earth’s systems in a very dangerous way because we are not in alignment with the solar cycle.

And we are doing this to such an extent that we are confronting a mass extinction of plants and animals, and a perilously threatened atmosphere. You’ve probably noticed a paradox at work here. While we are all individuals with our own life histories to fulfill, we are also an aggregate body. We are all part of a mass of humanity that together is in danger of tanking the whole enterprise of biotic life. So does it matter, really, that we are individuals? That, when taken together, our impact is so powerful and inescapable? Does it matter what you do?

Now here’s some very good news. Even as human impacts are putting way too much pressure on other species, human ingenuity has come up with fantastic ways to figure out exactly where and exactly how that is happening. We have developed tools of perception, observation systems that help us get a picture of the wholeness we are part of. Every day satellites circle the earth, taking pictures of where photosynthesis is happening, where deforestation and desertification are happening. Monitoring tools allow us to actually keep track of where fishing vessels are plundering protected waters, for example, so law enforcement can quickly intercede. We can know the whole of what’s going on as never before. 

But here’s the rub. We need individuals — each and every one of us — to participate both in identifying those pictures of what is going on, in spreading community awareness of what is going on, and in putting pressure on law enforcement and other regulatory methods to protect species and ecosystems. This is the practice of citizen science. 

Late in Campbell’s life, he said, actually, the age of the hero’s journey is over. He said the hero’s journey, or the quest of the individual, was useful for cultures when we lived in tribes, but now we live in a global world, we’re all one tribe. Now we have to find a story that we all relate to, regardless of what country we’re from, or what kind of religion we do or do not practice. 

Well, that story found us. Sometimes it’s called climate change or global change. Sometimes it’s called the Anthropocene. Sometimes it’s called mass extinction. And here’s another misalignment at the core of our troubles — we have placed ourselves at the center of the hero’s journey. Turns out, it’s the earth that is actually making a solar cycle or a heroic journey. 

Citizen science helps us understand that. The word “citizen” is sometimes contested. There’s a discussion around this word in the citizen science community because its practitioners don’t want anyone to feel excluded from engaging with it. But the word “citizen” goes back much further in history than our current struggles with immigration. It implies both an individual, the citizen, and the polity to which that citizen belongs. The great naturalist Aldo Leopold called for us to change “the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it.”

Growing up here, you feel attuned with nature. When you’ve taken a walk, ridden your bike, seen a fox or a bunny, bobbed in the ocean, caught a wave. You’ve noticed what time of year it is even if only to remind yourself of when it gets dark, late in summer, early in winter. You’ve noticed different species here at different times of year — maybe you’ve gone to see the nesting terns at Indian Wells Beach and been dive-bombed while they defend their territories. 

This experience that you hold in your memory and in your body is a precious template for reconciling your role as an individual and your place in the larger whole. And now your task is to keep in tune with this essential rhythm.

People may be engaged with climate change and “sustainability,” but few are looking beyond the fossil fuel issue to even more prevalent threats to biodiversity, like habitat destruction and population growth. We need more discussions about nature, about what it means to be a plain citizen and how you can all help further the earth’s heroic journey. To this poem without words that has informed and helped shape us who grew up here, this essential rhythm we’ve experienced here, give words. We need to communicate this with each other. How? Let nature be your guide. 

Joseph Campbell was wrong about one thing. The hero’s journey is not over. In fact, we find ourselves in the most exciting, the most terrifying, the most important part of the heroic journey, the pivotal turn of the solar cycle. We are in a dark time of not understanding, of being afraid, and we are threatened to our core. Yet as Campbell himself taught us, this is the time of discovery, of creativity, of spiritual strength, and new awareness. 

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.” Our bliss is right here. Let’s follow it.


This is adapted from a commencement address Mary Ellen Hannibal gave at the Ross School on June 17. She will read from “Citizen Scientist” at the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton on June 24 at 3 p.m.