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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Not a Cog in a Machine; You're a Swirling Whirlpool

Not a Cog in a Machine; You're a Swirling Whirlpool

Author: Reilly Capps/Saturday, August 29, 2015/Categories: plants

[By NASA and European Space Agency]

By Reilly Capps

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," wrote Joan Didion. "We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of fie." These are small stories. And hearing nothing but small stories, well, sucks. One problem is Twitter, Facebook and the newspapers. The New York Times is the worst. It starts with the assumption that there's a shared narrative that we're all supposed to believe is important and understandable: ISIS is a huge threat; The Donald is a laughing stock; markets should go up. This can soothe us into thinking we know the big picture. But they're all fragments, a mystery novel cut up with scissors and spread across the floor.

Others have tried to see the really big picture. Honest folks know they didn't know. "No one has ever known the truth, and no one will know it," wrote Xenophanes, 2500 years ago. Xenophanes gets props, though -- he took a swipe at the Great Truth: everything is earth and water, he said, and there are infinite worlds. Not a bad try. "A" for effort.

Others didn't try so hard; they repeated what they were told: about talking snakes in gardens, about Great Floods and women born from ribs. When I was 7, the Great Story of God started to unravel when I learned God never mentioned dinosaurs. Another came in third grade, when a video conclusively demonstrated that women aren't born from men's ribs, they come from other women's vaginas. To be born now is to have your eyes seared open by a cold blinding light.

No one knows the truth. But ... for the first time, evidence and observation have helped us puzzle out a few sentences in a Great Story. A growing gang of scientists and humanists are calling this ... The Great Story (and others like Carlyn Porco, cheekily, call "The Greatest Story Ever Told"). Connie Barlow has put together a great website curating the different attempts at telling this story. What is this story? Here's my rendering, in 200 words or less:

You may seem to be alone, an insignificant cog in a vast machine, or one thread in the web of life. You are not. In the beginning, you were one with everything. Every speck and freckle in your body, every smile of your parents, every galaxy, star and planet, was once fused with every other speck. From that oneness, a big explosion. Bang! Energy shot out in all directions. The energy grouped into atoms, atoms grouped into suns, moons and planets. On our planet, the atoms came alive, as molecules. The molecules thrived, died, mutated and evolved into dolphins, algae, people. Since we all came from one living thing, all beings are cousins. You are not separate from nature. You are nature. You are the universe. When you die, your energy will be broken up and used in other living things. Much more than a cog in some vast machine, or one thread in the web of life, you are a swirling whirlpool, an evanescent, ever-changing concentration of energy emerging from and returning to the background flow.

That last sentence is stolen. It comes directly from Scott D. Sampson, a paleontologist; it's a quote that struck me like a fist when I saw it on the wall of the Museum of Natural History in Boulder. Any human is "An ever-changing concentration of energy emerging from and returning to the background flow."

Many Westerners hold the delusion that the exhaust from our cars and factories can't change the world, that humans will be fine no matter what the world is like. If anything is wrong, this is wrong. We're not separate. A metaphor like the Sampson's whirlpool metaphor, and a constant retelling of the Great Story, could bind us back up with nature, to know that its health is our health; we are made of plants, powered by sunlight. The plants die, so do we.

What if, as a kindergartner sits down to learn her letters, the teacher might say: "Hello my darling little swirling whirlpools of energy, you're humans, beings evolved from fish and reptiles, beings which have grown an astonishingly complex and capable brain that can communicate with other living things. One way we communicate is with language. Here is the letter A." Could she grow up with a better sense of why learning the letter "A" is both important and unimportant, where it fits in the Great Story?

Sampson's got a new book called "How to Raise a Wild Child," about connecting kids with nature. It's an exciting companion and expansion on Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods." Premise of both: Kids watch screens; they don't look at nature; this hurts and confuses them. (The diagnosis applies to adults, too.) His big-picture metaphor of the universe as a river of energy, out of which you emerge like a temporary whirlpool, is spelled out in this crazy good essay on his website. All of this, of course, echoes Our Hero Carl Sagan, and his constant insistence that "We are a way for the universe to know itself." (Here are a couple great Carl Sagan resources I stumbled on recently -- a blog called SaganSessed, an article about him in Smithsonian by Joel Achenbach, and his thoughts on cannabis.)

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