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Totally Outrageous? Think Again! – Putting The Pando In Pandora

(First published on Urban Times on 19th May 2011)

Avatar is one of the greatest blockbusters of all time. It made 77 million dollars in its opening weekend and 2.7 billion dollars to date, proving that emotional tales always have an edge over the audience, especially when aided by state-of-the-art special FX, a 3-D format, an inspired cinematography, and a visionary director.

The story itself is simple. It’s a tale of settlers and indigenous people, “civilized society” and “savages”, cross-cultural love, forbidden relationships, and the triumph of love and goodness over greed and brute force.

The Setting and Main Characters are:

  • Pandora: lush, hostile planet.
  • Unobtanium: rare, precious metal.
  • Corporation and Military: ruthless unobtanium prospectors.
  • Navi: local indigenous population resistant to mining and prospecting.
  • Avatars: Navi-resembling vessel-bodies that enable humans to navigate safely in Pandora’s hostile terrain.
  • Jake Sully: Disabled Marine; Avatar operator.
  • Neytiri: Navi chief’s only daughter.

In a nutshell, Jake Sully uses an Avatar to go undercover and spy on the Navi on behalf of the prospectors. In the process, he falls in love with the Chief’s daughter, Neytiri, and slowly begins to appreciate the local wisdom and way of life. Soon he finds himself trying to broker a deal between the Navi and humans. When diplomacy fails, he chooses to defend the Navi, leading the Pandora tribes in a last stand against the encroaching mining corporation.

Now for the outrageous part. The Navi are supposed to be connected with Pandora and all life on the planet via some sort of specialized neural synapses they have developed over the years. These synaptic organs are used to connect the Navi to the Tree of Souls, through which they are able to communicate with the entire biological network of the planet.

Then there’s the Tree of Voices, via which they can hear the voices of their ancestors, who offer them knowledge and wisdom.

last but not least, there’s the Hometree: a super-massive tree whose root system is so deeply embedded and interconnected with the bio-botanical neural networks of Pandora that any damage to it could knock the planet’s entire ecological system off track (symbolic of the Tree of Life, the Cosmic Tree, or the Axis Mundi, around which all life hinges.)

There you have it: the supernatural premise of Avatar. The concepts sound far-fetched and akin to mythology and parable, more cautionary tale than anything else. Right?

Not exactly. Upon closer look, these concepts are closer to fact that we think. For starters, indigenous populations in the Amazon have long used plants to learn things about the world. They receive visions from them, claiming the spirits of nature are speaking through them, teaching them all there is to know about nature and reality. Regardless of the shortcomings of this approach in terms of science, technology and progress in general, indigenous populations seem to be very cognizant and aware of two things, which modern society seems to have forgotten: the biological underpinnings of life on Earth, and the neural-spiritual connection that runs through what they generically refer to as the Web of Life.

Examples of spontaneous knowledge received from plant visions are cited by many shamans, who claim that the knowledge they possess – and hand down from master to apprentice – is obtained through altered states of mind that are elicited through ingestion of plants and other dietary and meditative practices. According to indigenous lore, such practices are in all practical purposes the bridges connecting ordinary reality to the natural godhead.

Avatar also makes references to the phenomena of soul-flight, spirit possessionmanifestation, and the separation of body and soul. Moving from waking consciousness to Avatar-reality is simply the translocation of consciousness from one body to another – a practice and belief ingrained in many religions and cultures.

Then there’s the historical and cultural references to the massacre of indigenous populations by encroaching colonists; the seizure of their land by settlers; the repression and annihilation of their way of life. Avatar explores how these tribes are hunted down, ousted and displaced en masse by all-powerful corporations, dubious lobbies, and hostile government.

Avatar also focuses on the mystical and trans-personal notions of indigenous culture. Its theme hinges on the concepts of nature’s wisdom and the web of life as a living, growing entity; a giant super-organism, alive and aware of itself in ways beyond human understanding. According to the idea, nature spans the entire planet, sustaining itself by keeping its dynamics in carefully maintained equilibrium, to which wanton prospecting and mining are of course harmful.

Avatar also focuses on the mystical and trans-personal notions of indigenous culture. Its theme hinges on the concepts of nature’s wisdom and the web of life as a living, growing entity; a giant super-organism, alive and aware of itself in ways beyond human understanding. It spans the entire planet, sustaining itself by keeping its dynamics in carefully maintained equilibrium, to which wanton prospecting and mining are of course harmful.

Now for the really outrageous part. Far from being just a noble-savage notion, or a theoretical and romantic concept, the idea of super-organisms spanning the bowels of a planet is fact. Such super-organisms have been observed here on Earth.

Aspen Pando trees are part of a massive underground organism

Take the Pando Tree for example. The Pando is a clonal colony of single male Quaking Aspens, intertwined and interconnected via a massive root system that weighs more than 6,000 tons. While there is some disagreement over whether the Pando is a single tree comprised of many tree-stems, or an arcane mesh of numerous organisms fused together, its structure and scope are inarguably gargantuan.

Some argue that the Pando may in fact be 80,000 years old. Others claim that it’s possibly a million. Figures beyond our grasp of life as we know it. And not restricted to the Pando. There’s also the Coastal Redwoods, Aspens too, an equally large and old organism, perhaps larger. Not to mention the fungal mats in Oregon, and the ancient clonal Creosote bushes, and strands of the clonal marine plant Posidonia oceanica in the Mediterranean Sea – all of them possibly more complex than the Pando, and far larger in biomass.

Dissimilar to each other as they may be, from fungus to marine plant to terrestrial root-and-shoot systems, these life forms share a common characteristic between them: complexity. They are ancient super-organisms of preternatural complexity, so massive and far-reaching, so deeply embedded in the ecology of the planet, that throwing one off has a potential knock-on effect of tremendous proportions on all life immediately or indirectly connected to them.

The notion is extraordinary and hard to grasp in practical terms. Avatar offers an enjoyable overview. It may be just a movie, an entertaining and simple-minded blockbuster, straightforward in terms of setting and storyline, and emotionally charged – call it a super-expensive love story with amazing special FX and a seen-it-and-heard-it-before feeling in terms of concept and message – but at the end of the day, it works. It is informative of things we would normally not pay attention to. It is visionary and inspirational, recreating an extraordinary world, making the audience part of its fantastical universe. And it is rooted in a few simple facts and basic concepts regarding biology, biodiversity and nature in general that may change the way we view life on earth.

All one has to do is take a closer look and put the Pando in Pandora to see that the outrageous in the story is not so outrageous after all. In fact, it is more real than we think.

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