For Princesa Krystalina de Columbia y Japón
Dreams of flying are part of the universal, archetypal, collective consciousness of our species. They harken back to some common ancestor that we share with monkeys and with the great apes. A million and a half years ago, a snake is making its way up an acacia tree in East Africa. Your ancient primate ancestor and mine escapes by taking to the air and sailing from one branch to another. Later, in that monkey’s dreams, that skimming between branches takes the form of flight.
I suspect that most of the 100 billion or so people who have lived on this planet since the days of Homo heidelbergensis (about 600,000 years ago) have envied birds their ability to fly. Now, here I am–I and two hundred others–behaving as though we were doing something pedestrian, something we have to put up with between, say, breakfast and that meeting in the afternoon in Tampa. Here I am, at 35,000 feet, looking down upon clouds and coastlines and rivers. If only Homo heidelbergensis could see me now!”
I submit that anyone who does this, who flies, without being spellbound simply is not being there. He or she is oblivious. If you don’t believe me, hold a séance, call up the shade of the Roman emperor Tiberius and ask him about it. He would have given half his empire to do what we are doing, just once.
And speaking of séances, we humans love a cheap thrill. We are like those country bumpkins who used to line up outside tents at carnivals to catch a glimpse of a two-headed calf or of an alligator man (some fellow with advanced psoriasis). Consider how we are bombarded with stories about ships and airplanes disappearing in the Bermuda Triangle, Big Foot, and people who can bend spoons with their minds. Think of the money that people spend on magnetic bracelets to cure cancer or pieces of cloth to wrap around their feet to “draw out toxins.” In the nineteenth century, it was séances, Joseph Smith’s magic eyeglasses from heaven, the Cardiff giant, and fairies in the garden. Why do we have such a taste for highly questionable wonders when there are so many real wonders all around us? All fun to think about but. . . but. . . come on, we can fly! All we have to do is to buy a ticket and try to be aware.
“The world is so full of a number of things. I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. I eat at a café. In the course of dinner, even in this age of the locovore, and even though the meal I am eating is fairly ordinary by American standards, I consume food and beverages assembled from ingredients that came from California and Morocco and New Jersey and Italy and Costa Rica and Sumatra and Madagascar and Japan. What hands picked those coffee beans, and on what hillside? How, and how well, were the owners of those hands compensated? From what sea was this salt harvested, ancient or modern, and down what rivers did it wash into that sea? By what subterranean routes did this water come, and what bodies did it inhabit before mine?
I pay the bill with money that is just a sort of collective fantasy and walk out onto a sidewalk past scurrying ants that are part of a single colony that stretches for sixty square miles around this epicenter, each ant a cell in what is perhaps best thought of as a single organism being fed instructions via chemical signals originating from one great Queen of the Borg. She rules an empire far greater than Tiberius’s. Her subjects enslave ants of other species, and they domesticate other creatures and milk them. I glance at the sky and even through the light pollution of this city, I see planets and stars and galaxies, and some of that light left on its journey to my retinas half a billion years ago. That constellation, there, is known today as Ophiuchus, the Serpent-Holder, but among some of the ancients, it was Erysichthon, whose name means, literally, “earth tearer.” He went into a grove sacred to the Earth goddess Demeter and started chopping down a tree. As he chopped, blood started pouring from the places where his blade landed. The hamadryad within the tree called out to him, begging him to stop, but he didn’t, so Demeter punished Erysichthon with a hunger that could not be satisfied. He sold all his possessions and even his own daughter to purchase food. Eventually, he consumed himself. He is there in the sky as a reminder of what happens to us when we mess with our Mother.
As I think of this story, I walk. My ten trillion cells coordinate this for me, without my thinking about it in the least, and some of these cells have trade agreements, of sorts, with 100 trillion other cells in my body that aren’t me at all, that are separate organisms hitching a ride. For these 100 trillion creatures, I am a biome, a sort of walking Great Barrier Reef. I share 40 percent of my genes with those blades of grass around the street trees. The blades of grass are my cousins, a few million times removed. I am, and everything around me is, mostly empty space. If you stuffed the stuff that makes me up all together, with no space intervening, I would be so small that you couldn’t see me at all. The very stuff that makes up my body is fuzzy, at the smallest level, and spread out infinitely, so that any given electron within me is interacting in a minute way, at this moment, with every other particle in the universe, and the total of all those interactions can be described by a single probability wave equation. One equation for the universe. This is our current scientific understanding.
My mind leaps in an instant from the universe as a whole to that street tree on the corner. It’s a maple, and as such, is capable of changing its sex . Gee, I think I’ll try things as a female for a while. That other tree, across the street, is a ginkgo, thought to be extinct until three lone specimens were found on a hillside in China. A shadow flits through the air–a bat, seeing the world with eyes, yes, but mostly with its sonar. And even its eyes see different wavelengths of light than mine do. It sees infrared radiation, which we experience as heat. It sees heat! It FREAKING SEES HEAT!!! It inhabits an alien universe. What could it possibly be like to be like that? What’s its idea of an evening? Oh, Mr. Nagel, good question, that!
A new Mongolian restaurant is opening. I, myself, have Genghis Khan as an ancestor, but so do ALL of the other people on this street because of something called combinatorial explosion, the doubling of the size of each generation going backward. Genghis murdered more people than live in this city. The people of this city ate a few hundred thousand of their fellow creatures this evening. Young people are coming in and out of bars, their minds crazy with dopamine and oxytocin, far stronger drugs, produced by their own brains, than those they smoked or swallowed earlier in the evening. Their bodies are flushed with the ancient mystery dance of sex and love and romance. Well over twenty-five percent of the women on this street, according to various studies of American females, will never orgasm, though they could. Half of the young men have no clue, even roughly, where the clitoris might be, and not one knows, unless he or she is a medical student, that the clitoral nub is the tip of a vast clitoral iceberg and that the nub alone has double the number of nerve ends of their precious penises. The beer that most are drinking, this evening, comes from slightly modified recipes developed by Middle Easterners who lived in caves or in holes they dug in the ground in the late Neolithic, 9,000 years ago. So what was it like to party with those guys? There’s a rainbow in the oil slick on the curb by that car. Why? That question, one of the most profound mysteries of the universe, was answered by Richard Feynman, the physicist, and for that answer, he received the Nobel Prize.
I think about all this, but what is this I that is thinking? I know you. I’ve got you pegged. But I, well, I’m the frigging intergalactic man of mystery. OK. You are, too. So, I was just kidding about that.
Real wonders, real mysteries, are all about us. They never cease. We should be reeling from the real, constantly, from the sheer bizarreness and beauty of it all. But we are dead to it. We aren’t paying attention. We’re on our way to the movie about the aliens: you know, the really imaginative, surprising movie in which the aliens appear, like, out of nowhere, see, and they hover over cities, see, in these big flying saucers and then–OMFG!!!–start blowing everything up. Can you believe that!!!????
Cheap thrills, and not all that thrilling. We squat in a pastry shop, the shelves filled with fresh baklava and brioche and éclairs, eating three-day-old hotdog buns. The reel of the world—the dream of the One—is real magic, and every day is strewn with diamonds and philosopher’s stones.
For other essays (and cartoons!) by Bob Shepherd on philosophical subjects, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/philosophy/