Friday, November 4, 2011


Tonight, while fat snowflakes lit up the night sky, I relaxed in a sort of child's pose in the bathtub, watching a tiny black speck no bigger than a grain of pepper floating in the bathwater. Suspended, it slowly drifted on an imperceptible current through the vast colorless void of the bath. It made me think of space, with the tiny speck of Earth suspended somewhere in its midst, surrounded by zillions of stars, the swirl of galaxies, the tie-dyed flashbulb explosions of supernovas. Here in the thick of the cosmos we spin like an-out-of-control top, all seven billion of us upside-down and rightside-up, glued to Earth's sphere by the miracle of gravity, hurtling together through space.

Long ago our worlds were small, our knowledge of them limited to a home, a village or a city, and the surrounding countryside that eventually ran into Endless Mountains or a Mysterious Desert or an Uncrossable Sea with Dangerous Sea Monsters! … until the map petered out into a great blank expanse. Who knew what was beyond? And who would have guessed at the complexity right beneath our feet?

How much we've learned about this planet we inhabit – and yet, how much less we know. As we've become gradually more aware of our spatial coordinates in the universe, we've lost our connection with the immediate places we inhabit. We forget how it was when everyone lived off the land, and in doing so we've lost the specialized, precise knowledge that once made every month a season unto itself, every detail vital. We move farther from the intimate knowledge that bore our language and cultures. Are we lonelier now that our sense of place has expanded into the gaping eternity of space and time? What's the trade-off?

The argument can be made that the modern experience has led to a great loss in place-based identity. But through that loss, the human race has come to know so much more than we ever have before. Our base of knowledge has become both wider in scope and narrower in focus. There is always more to learn, another molecular layer to scrape off. A square mile of Earth provides a lifetime of inquiry – nutrition and bacteriology and chemistry and soil biology; fungal spores and parasites and microbes, to say nothing of carpentry and home energy and geology.

And yet in the face of so much potential knowledge – surrounded by technologies that centuries ago would have made our heads spin – many of us seem to have lost our sense of wonder for the natural world. We are drawn more to flashy advertisements than the light of the night sky. How can we harness this great intellect we've cultivated to connect more deeply to this intricate, endless, fascinating world we live in? Even as we abuse it, it keeps revealing itself one layer deeper, always promising more, brushing aside the curtain just when you need it most for a tantalizing glimpse into a world where the indifferent laws of nature and the shape of the universe suddenly make sense for the space of a single breath. It's the moment when a fox pauses in the moonlight of a snowy night and looks right at you as you stand at your kitchen window while everyone else sleeps. Or when, in the midst of tragedy, one hand reaches for another. Ours is a world of curiosities, resilient and fragile at the same time, devastating and hopeful. It is the stuff told only by poets and music makers, captured best in a single note that makes your heart expand and ache and soar all at once.

Life is funny. The more we try to understand the limitless supply of information at our fingertips, the less sense we make of it. With the knowledge of countless generations spread before us, it's comforting to know that the world can still be held in a single drop of music. 

i love my macro lens

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