This is a dead cicada (that's why it held so still for my camera). Click to enlarge.
Monday, November 28, 2016
I sit in the outdoor tub on a fall evening, during a gusty, windy event. The winds blow through from time to time, peaking at speeds of 40 miles per hour (25 km/hr). Some 50 feet (15 meters) above me, sycamore trees tower overhead, flexibly bending this way, then that, as the force of the wind first pushes them aside, and then abates, causing the trees to sway and once again assume their erect posture. Soon another strong gust blows through, once again causing the trees to bow deeply. It's as if these sycamores are tall Chinese sages, genuflecting this way and then that, as they honor the forces of the universe.
Tall, mature trees merit my esteem for several reasons. First, they are much older than I, so just their longevity deserves tribute. I have always respected elders—plant or animal—simply because they've managed to weather the uncertainties and threats of life and have survived thus far. For example, any person who has managed to reach her nineties deserves my recognition, just for getting there.
Second, big trees are impressive because they dwarf me. I may believe that I'm special because I possess this unique and powerful brain—the greatest one on Earth—but when I'm in the presence of a towering tree I'm quite minuscule. It puts me in my place, like when I view a marvelous sunset: it's so much grander than I.
Third, trees possess a strength and a resilience far beyond mine. When I face a threat that can destroy me, my first and most effective defense is to run. Trees cannot retreat. They must stand their ground, and to do so, they must be strong, resourceful, and flexible. How many times has a 100-year-old tree withstood attacks and persevered?
Fourth, trees mean no harm. Unlike some humans, I do not have to fear that a tree has any intention to hurt me. In the deep woods I may tend to look over my shoulder, wondering if some sort of beast is about to pounce on me. But even if there were such a threat, it would be attacking me for its meal, not just to be nasty. No tree will ever track me and leap for the kill. I can safely sidle up to a tree in the woods and feel unthreatened.
So I have what I believe are good reasons to honor and feel comfortable around trees. I can relax and esteem them and be moved by their beauty. Yet, on a windy night like this, as I watch the massive trees towering above me bend in the gusts, I'm also aware that, if one of them is overcome by a huge gust and topples onto me, I'm squashed like a bug on a car's windshield. I'm vulnerable and weak out here, knowing those trees are many hundreds of pounds of hard mass that can fall on me. It is rather sobering to realize that the benevolent giant above me could quickly do me in, in an instant.
Nevertheless I trust the trees' exquisite balance and flexibility. I trust in their longevity and the fact that they've withstood many winds far stronger than what tonight offers. The chance of my getting squished is vanishingly small (or so I hope), so let me shed any anxiety due to fear of being crushed, and rejoice in the ability to share this lovely evening with my magnificent friends the trees.
Thursday, November 24, 2016
Saturday, November 12, 2016
In fact, I like to speculate about what our world might be like, if a given major event had not occurred. For example, what if that contingent asteroid 65 million years ago had not blasted into Earth? At the time, the dinosaurs ruled the planet, and they had successfully done so for more than a hundred million years. (Try to wrap your head around that time frame: that's some 500 times longer than we humans have been a species!) At thatsmall mammals—from which we humans evolved—scurried around in the dark, trying to keep from being trampled upon or eaten by the big lizards. In the aftermath of the collision, the dinosaurs died out and the age of mammals began. How would life on Earth have been different, if that asteroid had missed the planet? Might today's dominant species be an intelligent lizard, rather than Homo sapiens?
In 2000 Al Gore lost the US presidential election... but he really didn't. Some nefarious activities by George Bush's brother Jeb, Florida's governor at the time, managed to prevent thousands of Floridians from voting—most of whom, since they were either black or poor, would have voted for Gore. George Bush would thus have been relegated to history's trash bin. By coincidence (well, actually with the aid of a biased US Supreme Court), Bush became president. Had Gore won, it's doubtful that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan would have happened. It's also likely that the US would have assumed a leadership role in dealing with global warming, rather than deny that it is happening. Surely history would have taken another path, had Gore become president.
Let's look at a third alternative possibility. Certain contingent events hundreds of years ago placed European countries in a position to dominate the planet—both economically and militarily. As Jared Diamond demonstrated so well in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, the Europeans gained the upper hand, when competing with all other societies on the planet. Europeans defeated and controlled peoples in the Americas, the Middle and Far Easts, and Africa. The European way came to dominate. But how radically different would today's world appear if, for example, Africans had held the upper hand? Or if the Aztecs had been stronger than the conquistadors? What if the mighty Islamic empire of the Middle East had won its rivalry with the West in the 1400s? Play history over again and the world would be a very different place.
I find this a fascinating game to play. Of course, there is no way to realistically guess how these and countless other contingencies may have altered the world of today. In a similar manner, I cannot begin to speculate who I might be if my parents had never married. I simply would not be!
This kind of musing is fun for me, but has no real point to it, other than reminding me that it didn't have to be this way. There was no destiny or cosmic intent involved in how things played out. Our future is not fixed by fate. Things simply happen, and they don't happen because they were supposed to. There is no plan. The future remains unknown and even random. The world wasn't destined to be what it is. May I let go the need to want to see some purpose that determined it all and simply accept and be thankful for what is.
Saturday, November 5, 2016
I recently visited the US National Arboretum in Washington, DC, and spent some time with a special bonsai exhibition there. The amount of time and artistic talent that goes into these creations is astounding. They truly are a object of meditation. Click to enlarge.
Monday, October 31, 2016
I am fascinated by the role of chance in the unfolding of history (as well as prehistory, before we humans came upon the scene). When we look back at events that occurred in the past, we can see that many (if not most) of them were flukes: complete surprises that no one could have foreseen. And when they occurred they dominated the course of events. Had they not happened, the present would have unfolded in an entirely different way. Had not Jack Kennedy been assassinated, for example, how differently would American history have unfolded? Had the Soviet Union not dissolved a quarter century ago, what would the world look like today?
The asteroid that crashed to Earth 65 million years ago and terminated the reign of the dinosaurs is another (prehistory) prime example. Another is the ice age of 10-20 thousand years ago that provided a pathway for Asian wanderers to inhabit the Americas. And, to bring it closer to home, what about that time when, as a teenager, I nearly trashed the family car? Had I expired in the accident, this blog (or my kids) would never have been.
I have tended to classify these events as being either an example of a coincidence or a contingency. They both describe similar happenings. To be more specific, a coincidence usually refers to a couple of events that occurred simultaneously, but with no apparent causal connection. A contingency usually describes a single incident that seems to have been unanticipated. In either case, it's a surprise, a chance, a random happening, a fluke, an unpredictable event.
It is a human tendency, however, to interpret most of these unforeseen events as neither coincidental nor contingent. We dislike having things happen for no apparent reason. We rebel against chance and arbitrariness. We want reasons for things. We read intent into incidents and want to believe that things happen for a purpose. We are inclined to look for patterns, or for the hand of God or some other superhuman cause. Something must have caused this significant thing to happen—it couldn't simply have been chance!
Many people wonder how they are to live their lives, if they concede that the universe is simply a chance unfolding. As Einstein once quipped, “God does not play dice.” He was referring to random events at the quantum level, but many people feel that his comment applies to a much wider range of events.
Having a scientific bent, I have fun speculating about events throughout history; looking at them as if they were quite random and unpredictable. When I let go the inclination to see a particular happening as caused by some powerful agent, I can ponder the many alternative scenarios that could have transpired instead. It helps me to grasp and appreciate just how fickle this world is.
More on contingencies and coincidences next time...