May 17, 2007


So I’m currently among the unemployed – apparently, offering a week of free labour to prospective employers doesn’t get the response you might think. This means I no longer spend the day with several attractive women, and instead serve time by fiddling about the house and yard; tapping keys on the ‘puter; and walking the dog.

With Spring here, yet. I must be mad for quitting now.

In any case, one pleasant side effect of walking along the river is – well, it’s its own reward, really; but otherwise it gives you a space to think, and to observe, and to simply wonder, if that’s you inclination. And what I was thinking of this time out was change.

Every time I go to the river, it’s different. If you’ve walked in woods, you know that the view walking in one direction tells you nothing about the other: it’s how people can end up lost for hours (or worse) crossing the same patch of land a dozen times and never recognizing it. When it’s Summer or Winter, and smack in the middle of them, then the changes are subtle. Trees grow very little when it’s hot and sunny, and not at all in the cold.

The times of great change are in the transformation to those points.

In my favorite season, Autumn, the vegetation around you shake off their excesses, plant their seeds, and settles in, trusting that life will awaken them later. It’s a calm, confident season, where the plants hand their bounty to the animals in the continuous exchange, the barter of the ecosystem. But in Spring you can feel life surge out of the ground itself; see the dramatic extent of competition in the plants; study the near infinite ways each has grown to take advantage of the slightest hope of light or nutrients. Slashes of dogwood blossoms sneak out from behind cedars; twists of arbutus swirl through firs or grab a tenacious hold at the edge of rock falls; ageless ferns slowly uncurl, patient for what little light they need to slip past big leaf maples when a gust of breeze allows it.

It is awesome.

But it comes at a cost. The cost is, to put it bluntly, that all life will end. Everything there, everything alive, was grown from the bodies of those before them. The salmon spawn is a wonderful sight, but I don’t walk the dog anywhere near the river for at least a month after it happens! And without the nutrients that those corpses provide, the plants along the river would have a far more difficult time of it. And everything else as well, of course: bears, crawfish, seagulls… It’s the exchange that is made for the only immortality that anything can have.

And so we come to religion.

There are few faiths out there that do not have some form of paradise: Jews don’t have an afterlife, for instance; nor do Buddhists. But for those who do, there is a standard feature that each paradise comes with that has always struck me as a terrible cop-out: immortality. Everything just so, forever and ever, Amen.

And you know? I just can’t buy it.

There is no such thing as infinity, other than as a concept. Numbers, for instance, could be considered infinite (I can’t wait until they find the final numeral of pi), but numbers themselves are created logical structures, and have no inherent reality outside what we supply them with. Grains of sand on a beach could perhaps be considered infinite, except that if this were the case the beach would have no end, and it clearly does. The atoms in the sky are limited, or else there wouldn’t be any room for space. Even space is limited in its scope, falling to our imagination and our math.

I’m remembering Doctor Feynman’s wonderful conversation starter with children: “Do you know there’s twice as many numbers as numbers?” For any number the child gave, he’d simply double it. But that’s the only image of the infinite we can manage. An eternal paradise? And what would sustain it?

I’ve heard of one version saying that there shall be no more predators, and that all animals will live on plants. Never minding the radical physiological changes mosquitoes and cats and shrews and birds (unless you don’t think bugs count as animals) would have to endure: what then, do the plants live on? Plants don’t grow when there are no nutrients in the soil to provide them, and one of the greatest risks of monocultures (growing a single food item) is that eventually the nutrients that those plants need to grow has been used, and then the plant fails. Crop rotation has been around almost as long as societies have been to combat just that, but crop rotation doesn’t happen in nature. Instead, the varieties of life are mixed together, each plant and animal finding and exploiting a niche available to it. If there is nothing replacing those nutrients, no fish coming up river to spawn and die, then the drain eventually strangles the life from the plants.

What animals supply is mobility.

Animals take a variety of food from a far greater range than the plant could ever reach. That is returned to the soil as excrement, minus what we take to keep ourselves alive and growing. Those, we return to the soil when we die. Exactly the same way a fallen tree slowly decomposes and becomes a “mother tree”, with various plants and animals feeding off the nutrients released from the decaying tree. If everything was immortal, all that we’ve used to keep ourselves going, everything that was needed for a tree to live 200 years, everything that is every animal, would be removed from the ecosystem.

There is no food chain, and no pyramid, either. The reality is that life, the life around us now, feeds off death and cannot do otherwise. It’s a far more complicated and amazing thing than most people realize. For instance, without earthworms, we die.

There are times to suspect simplicity, and recognize when Occam’s Razor is being weilded by an idiot. Someone telling you: “Worship this, because you’ll live forever” is one of them.


posted by Thursday at 11:02 pm


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