Truly Dirt Is the Only Truth: Thoughts on the Anthropocene

Earth_BothHemispheres_NASA
“Blue Marble” (source: Wikimedia.org)

I believe in Earth.

Field biologists have discovered organisms that survive and have survived for eons virtually independent of the sun — deep on the ocean floor or miles below the earth’s crust — living on sulfur and radioactivity in the rocks that encapsulate them. Yet, we tend to imagine life in our own narrow image. We attribute voices to bipedal foxes and feudalism to the lions of sub-Saharan Africa. In art, we rarely imagine aliens as anything but humans with slight alterations (antennae, abnormally large heads, or green skin). We rarely imagine God as anything but a bearded old man. We observe and explain through anthropic bias. In this, we assert that Homo sapiens are the purpose and archetype, the alpha and omega, of existence. Rather, humanity and all extant Mammalia are merely the stalk of a single leaf on the Tree of Life – a fragile and fleeting stray thought.

Life will outlive us.

Those subterranean microorganisms that live and multiply despite human strife attest:

Humans may detonate all weapons of mass carnage, set the Earth aglow, and destroy the large organisms that toil upon the surface. Mutually assured destruction. Apocalypse. Ragnarök. In your dreams you are always present to witness the (capital-E) End. Think of your arbitrary and imagined landmark years – 1984, Y2K, and 2012 – how uninterrupted did Earth and time move on? How significant were those dates in hindsight? Despite your perceived might, humans cannot destroy all life.

(See what I did there? I gave a voice to organisms that have none. It’s just so easy.)

The earth is 4.5 billion years along. It may have many more billions of years to go. Little life, life unlike us, will go on independent and ignorant of our misdeeds beyond the eons that erase our history until the sun, our little star (perhaps, just one in one billion trillion in our Universe), swells and swallows this rock. Even then, all likelihood suggests that life will continue elsewhere.

That is not to express apathy when faced with daunting change — global warming and the sixth great extinction. That is, instead, a rejection of the Anthropocene — an anthropomorphized epoch not only in which humankind lives but an epoch that is humankind, a bipedal epoch with a voice. Homo sapiens have reviewed the state of the planet and boasted in false lament, “We did this!” But Homo sapiens are not the first organisms to affect great change, nor the organisms to affect the greatest change. There is more of phytoplanktonic waste in the air and atmosphere than humankind in its alleged Anthropocene.

I believe in riverside pine that make the kayaker feel appropriately small. A steep knob rises along the Black Mountain Crest — a sheer cliff with footing no wider than half a boot. Step across, one foot in front of the other.

Science cannot reason-away faith. Religion cannot appropriate reason.

Tossing a coin in a well is superstitious. Yet, prayer is religious. Neither grants wishes any more than reciting the Linnaean name “Ursus arctos!” (like “Expelliarmus!”) grants you lordship and, so, pacifies a charging grizzly. Biologists have concluded that many wild mammals — from wolves to ungulates — only attack humans when threatened, starved or ill (except when they do when they’re not). Science is a lot like religion. The latter believes without proof and the former denies until proof is exhausted. Both are often wrong. The question is, which is wrong for the right reasons?

I accept frigid weather and biting insects and all things that exist not to convenience humankind. That said, I bundle against the cold and swat mosquitos like anyone else. I can survive well enough alongside inconvenient things but I recognize that they do not need a reason to be or to have a right to be. They are as I am.

We are left with dirt.

There may be dimensions of existence – perhaps, the living soul – that we cannot comprehend much less observe. There is, however, existence that we can observe but can hardly comprehend: microorganisms and the things that creep and nibble, fungi and other stewards of decay. There is poetry in tooth and claw, how one thing ends so another may endure. There is Truth in the unforgiving, unthinking, unknowing things that ingest and redistribute our bodies in soil and, in making us small, make us big.

We become Earth.

We are brought home. We are not welcomed but we are not wasted – not debased but put right and put to use. Despite our ideas and achievements, this is the way of all things. This is the only Truth.

I believe in dirt.

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