Friday, August 18, 2017

Nearly Nothing

There are two truths about our place in the universe that we humans have a tendency to deny. The first is that our personal existence has virtually no measurable or lasting consequence to the world. The second is that planet Earth is quite inconsequential to the universe. Both of these truths have a long history of cultural beliefs that reject them. Our myths and religions have consistently placed humanity at the center of creation; at the peak of it all. Everything, according to these myths, was created with the intention that it was all for humanity. It's all about us.
And what's more, it's all about me. All my life I have believed that the universe revolves about me. Babies naturally feel that way, due to their initial constricted view of life. And we never quite grow out of that view. Every moment of every day my senses tell me that it's all about me.
Both of these myths have been shattered by science, which is a major reason why religion has long been at odds with science. The first blow to the human ego came with the so-called Copernican Revolution—when science clearly demonstrated that the Earth is not at the center of the universe. In fact, in another couple of hundred years science showed that even the sun is not at the center of the universe. No, our sun is at the outer rim of an ordinary galaxy containing hundreds of billions of other suns. Furthermore, our galaxy is only one among hundreds of billions of other galaxies.
Where does that put little Earth? Somewhere far from the center of it all. What's more, recent discoveries have found thousands of planets in our local corner of the galaxy—suggesting that there likely are countless planets across the universe. And one final blow: science appears to be on the verge of discovering that Earth is not the only planet where life exists.
So much for Earth ego. Then how about my individual ego? Doesn't my existence mean anything to the universe? No, probably not. But wait, how about my people or my local corner of the planet; don't I mean something to them? Not likely. Can anyone have a lasting impact? You could argue that Jesus and the Buddha have had a lasting impression on humanity, but most of us fall immeasurably short of them.
Does that mean when I am gone I leave no lasting trace? Not for long. Before I was born I had no impact on the world—by definition. How long after I'm gone will I be remembered? Not long. A very small number of people upon whom I had a little influence may recall me and what I did, but even that memory will soon fade.
These truths are nihilistic thoughts for most people. These truths suggest to some people that our individual existence, as well as Earth's existence, are meaningless. We amount to nothing. It's a real downer for them.
I strongly disagree. It only appears purposeless if you contrast these truths to the false myths that the universe revolves around us; that we are so special. To realize that we are really quite ordinary is a huge comedown.
I think we put emphasis on the wrong things, however, when we buy into these falsehoods that feed our egos. Instead of thinking that we are unique and special, we can accept the truth of our ordinariness. Get over it. What gives life real meaning is what we each can do to help those around us—our local community—in our lifetimes. What can we do to make the lives of those around us (humans, animals, plants) a little better? There's an expression that has pretty much become a cliché, but is relevant here: “Think globally, act locally.” What really robs life of meaning is not that we are nothing special, but to waste the precious opportunity we've been given (this existence we have) on trivial thoughts and activities. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Enchanting Eden

Every now and then, as I ramble about our pleasant little homestead here in the Shenandoah Valley, I pause to reflect on how beautiful it all is. We moved out to these woods 35 years ago, built a house, and set up a simple lifestyle, living as close to the land as we can. The grounds have gotten prettier each year and we feel blessed to live in such wonderful surroundings.
At times when I'm appreciating the beauty of the place, the thought comes to my mind that we're living in our own little Eden. That may seem a bit of an overstatement, since the biblical Eden is described as a perfectly idyllic place; a sort of Heaven on Earth. Well, maybe our homestead is not quite such a paradise, but it's about the closest I'm ever likely to come.
As I pondered whether or not it was appropriate to equate our surroundings with Eden, I found myself once again pondering the myth of that biblical garden paradise, and what the story means to the human species. I don't think that the biblical tale of our banishment from Eden should be taken literally; that's why I use the term “myth.” I don't use the word to indicate that the Genesis story is false or make believe; just that it is an allegory—a story that contains truths, though it probably did not happen exactly as written. George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree as a kid and then confess his foul deed to his dad, but the story does kind of capture the honesty and integrity of the man.
So, if Eden was that wonderful, why did those ancients leave, many thousands of years ago? Sure, the story is that they were evicted for bad behavior, but I doubt that is the case. I can't ever conceive of leaving my own Eden, and I sure as hell would never do anything to get kicked out, no matter how good the apples taste. It is written that Eve and Adam disobeyed the landlord, but I'm not sure that's true either, and I very much rebel at the idea of their committing some kind “original sin” for which we all are still trying to recover. So I wonder if there might be an alternative explanation for Genesis Eden myth.
The Garden of Eden was likely situated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East—also known as the Cradle of Civilization—roughly in modern-day Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow. The region saw the rise of some of the earliest human civilizations, as people transitioned from hunter-gatherer bands into settled communities, when agriculture allowed humans to settle down and permanently reside in the region, around 10-12 thousand years ago. The Fertile Crescent was indeed fecund. Crops grew exceedingly well in the rich soil, well-watered by these two rivers. The population grew rapidly.
As humans tend to do, however, the Fertile Crescent soon was transformed into the arid land it is today, when farming techniques exhausted the top soil and the trees that were previously cut down no longer could hold soil in place. Human activity literally altered the Garden of Eden into the Desert of Eden. Inhabitants of the region came upon hard times, as the once-abundant agriculture faltered.
Might this human-caused deterioration of the land be the source of the biblical myth of Adam and Eve's banishment from Eden? This was long before written history, so it's easy to conceive of the Semitic peoples of the area describing in their oral history an easier ancient time when farming was rewarding, but then hard times came. They no longer lived in a fertile and productive garden, but had to struggle with depleted land. These people were not evicted from the Garden of Eden—they destroyed it and were forced to move on.
This is a story that humanity has repeated several times. The Maya in Central America caused their civilization to collapse, when their depleted lands could no longer support the growing population. Americans did it in the 1930s in southwestern USA, as they watched the winds blow away their dry dusty land that they had depleted through poor agricultural practices. The world today faces similar soil exhaustion in many locations, as modern agricultural methods destroy topsoil at increasing speeds. Humanity is plundering many more Edens; planet-wide. It makes me wonder if the biblical story of Eve and Adam is, instead of a historical description, maybe a prophecy.
In the meantime, humans have also learned good farming techniques. We now know how to care for the soil, and even improve it. Unfortunately, our greed destroys far more land than we heal.
Meanwhile, I rejoice in the little Eden where I live. This land had not been disturbed much, before we arrived 35 years ago. The top soil is naturally thin and not very productive, but we've improved it over the years. I hope we can be fortunate enough to remain here—working with our Eden—until we depart this world. I hope that we also may avoid any kind of eviction from this beautiful place. I have no interest in becoming a modern Adam.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Red Admiral Butterfly

Red admiral butterfly. It's denoted as a "brushfoot," because of the short foreleg of the male. It is one of the few butterflies in our area that migrates (like the monarch) and overwinters as an adult, in Florida. This one insisted on hanging around me for an hour or so; in fact, landing on my pants leg (top photo) a few times. Note the dramatic difference between his upper and lower wing coloring. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Failing Feline

Our homestead cat Cecil seems to be, as the saying goes, “on his last legs.” His age is uncertain, because we selected him as an adult, at the local animal shelter, over 11 years ago. He might be 15? Maybe more. That's a reasonably long lifetime for a feline. Over the last couple of years he's been demonstrating that his time is running out. He's been failing at his homestead duties: keeping rodents at bay. His cognitive abilities—never very impressive—have been failing also.
He appears to be suffering from some kind of feline dementia, among other possible ills. He wanders about the house aimlessly, frequently pausing, as if he's lost his train of thought. Was he about to eat, or scratch, or lie down, or go outside? Wandering across the floor, he'll change his direction suddenly, as if an opposing thought pops into mind. I'm trying hard to avoid calling him a dumb cat. 
We humans adopt a wide variety of critters whose minds are quite diminutive and then project onto them cognitive abilities that are far beyond what they're capable of. For example, a few decades ago some people even wanted to ascribe emotions to their pet rock.
So our resident feline has been delivering the message that his health—both physical and mental—is failing. As we would do for any member of our human family, we've tried to do for Cecil: allowing his increasing eccentricities to be. The process has often tested our patience—as well as his. He recently crossed a line that saw us choosing to designate him as a full-time outdoor cat—primarily in an attempt to preserve our sanity, as he demanded to go out or come back in, for what seemed to be more than a dozen times a day. Shortly after crossing through the doorway, he'd look around in confusion, and quickly demand to go back. In addition, he'd occasionally decorate a corner of the house with a deposit of cat poop. The urge probably came upon him too quickly to take it outdoors. It simplifies things for all of us, if he remains outside.
Cecil is slowly wasting away. He eats a fraction of what he once consumed, sleeps most of the time, keeps close to the house, and gets skinnier each day. We pet him to comfort him, noting every protruding bone on his scrawny body. His coat is disheveled and dirty looking. He's loosing hair. He no longer does much grooming. Fortunately, he does not exhibit any signs of pain. He simply looks confused. His meow—once loud and insistent—is now soft and pleading.
In other words, we have been engaged in a kind of death watch—hoping that Cecil, with the assistance of Mother Nature, will soon decide to let go and peacefully pass away. He's taking much longer than we expected. (Longer than we wished?)
As another incredible example of Cecil's decline, last evening I looked out the window, noting that he was in his current favorite position: lying on his side, dozing on the patio. When we see him recumbent and lying so still, we often pause to see if we can discern him breathing... to see if that spark of life is still present. What caught my eye at that moment was a bird—a titmouse—furiously pecking away at Cecil's back. How bizarre! A bird assaulting a cat? Was this bird expressing some sort of death wish? I quickly saw that the bird was collecting nesting material, as its bill was getting crammed with cat fur. My God! Cecil had died, and the bird was the first scavenger to come calling!
I went outside for a closer look, just as Cecil demonstrated that he still possessed a spark of life. He suddenly awakened, and turned around startled, as the bird flew off with a beakful of cat hair. Cecil looked at me, slowly turned back, and again fell into deep sleep. I guess his demise will wait for another day... and maybe another nesting bird.
[Postmortem: Cecil did finally pass away a few days ago. He died in our arms, peacefully.]

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Found this interesting caterpillar. I'm not sure I was able to identify it, but I think it's in the silkworm family. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Complex Bird Calls

Sitting in the outdoor tub with the stillness of night stealing in, I love to listen to the evening bird calls, as each species takes its turn, before flying off to the night's roost. I can almost predict the sequence of calls, as the titmice and goldfinches begin the evening's sign-off, followed by a tumultuous Carolina wren. Then the wood thrush and the cardinal vie to see which one closes off the day's symphony, before the whippoorwill ushers in the night chorus.
I love to listen carefully to the various calls, trying to discern if birds of different species seem inclined to listen to each other—if only to determine when their own song can be offered by slipping it in between the calls of others, so as to minimize the overlap and maximize the chance that each of them will be heard. The intent of their singing is not to compete with a different species, but to signal any nearby birds of its own species that it's here and deserves respect. (In a similar fashion, it has been shown that birds singing in cities modify their calls, in an attempt to be heard above the din.)
Most of the calls I recognize come from old friends, with whom we've cohabited in this clearing in the woods for a few decades now. I have come to expect their voices each evening. But now and then I hear an unfamiliar call and wonder who it is. Might it be a visitor who's testing whether it might find a home here? Might it just be passing through and stopping on a pleasant evening, to join the chorus?
This particular evening brings a new, rather complex call. It seems to me that it's two different birds—one shouting out a high-pitched melodious squawk, sort of like a soprano bluebird. The second call is a lower-pitched “burp, burp, burp.” It must be two different species, I think, with such contrasting calls. They even seem to be coming from two different directions in the woods.
But as I listen over several minutes, I begin to become suspicious about my first impression. These two different calls are precisely synchronized. They quickly follow one another in the same succession, but never overlap. When I normally listen to two different species of birds calling out, they seem to be trying to fit their calls into each other's gaps, but inevitably get a little sloppy and overlap each other just a bit. These two calls tonight never overlapped.
So maybe I'm listening to just one bird that sings out with two very different calls—one a high-pitched squeal and the other a low-pitched burp? That could be. The wood thrush has a three-part call—each part having a very different quality. And I've written here before how the different parts of the wood thrush's call even seem to emanate from different locations in the woods. I have decided that the wood thrush's song appears to come from different directions, because one part of the call reflects off trees leaves, while the other part penetrates deep into the woods.
So what am I listening to this evening—two birds who have an uncanny ability to perfectly synchronize their calls, or a single bird with a two-part call? I do seem to hear the call coming from two different locations in the woods. The answer will not come tonight, as the calls soon ceased. The bird (or birds) will hold onto their secret for another day.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Sun

There will be a solar eclipse in the US on August 21, and I will be (hopefully) in a good place to observe it. For practice I bought a solar filter to place over my camera lens, to take photos of the sun. The first photo above is from NASA, of a solar flare a few years ago. One must wait until the moment when a flare occurs, to catch it. The bottom two photos I took recently through my filter. On the bottom photo I seem to have some internal reflections inside the lens. Maybe I can figure out a way to get rid of them for next month's extravaganza. Click to enlarge.