A stream of rambling thoughts began, as it often does, on my morning walk. Halley discovered yet another masterpiece of odoriferous expression, and as she inspected it thoroughly I found myself wondering about its, um, provenance. Too big for a raccoon’s, doesn’t look like a dog’s…bear? Hmm, I’ve never seen bear turds, so I wouldn’t know (aside: I can’t find any pictures on-line, either — what up with that, Flickr fans?).
This reminds me of the old sardonic question, “Does a bear shit in the woods?” “Of course he does, where else would he do it?” is the implied answer.
Just like “Is the Pope Italian?” — er, “Polish?” — I mean, “German?”. That one’s lost a lot of its tautological punch, hasn’t it?
Maybe someday the question of the bear’s defecatory destination will not seem so obvious, either, as we continue to eliminate forests around the globe. I don’t mean to get all Greenpeace on you, but bears’ habitats are shrinking all the time. I can imagine a de-Italicized version of the bear question fifty years hence: “Does a bear shit in the zoo?”
Sometimes when flying into a major city at night, I think that humanity looks like a huge, glowing, heat-producing organic singularity on our planet. Not unlike a slime mold, nor perhaps of any more consequence.
We’ve subjugated or eliminated other species with the ruthlessness of an invasive non-native plant when introduced into an environment less competitive than its original home. If it weren’t for the huge genetic similarities between humans and other primates, as well as the paleontological evidence of our forebears, I’d be tempted to think we came from another planet with a less survivable environment.
Bonobo chimps share 98.4% of our DNA. In my previous life, I want to come back as a Bonobo chimp. Just hang out in the trees, eat, and have group sex all day. Yes, I said “previous life”. In my next life, there won’t be any rain forests left for Bonobo chimps to live in, so I’ll have to come back in the past. What? If I have a spirit that is capable of transcending the spatial limits of my body, then why shouldn’t it also be able to transcend the passage of time, which is probably no more than a perception?
Spirit. That’s an interesting concept. We get this via the Hebrew word ruach, literally “breath”. We take “breath of life” metaphorically now, but perhaps originally it just meant breathing. If you’re breathing, you’re alive. When you breathe your last breath, you “give up the ghost(ruach)”. Greek perpetuates this association with pneuma.
Our idea of “spirit” these days has less to do with life and more to do with intelligence. We generally believe now that intelligence resides in the brain, and there’s a lot of good research to support that theory (making exception for certain cases). The ancient Sumerians believed that the liver, not the brain, was the seat of the intellect. Perhaps this was because they could observe the effects of alcohol equally on the mind and on the liver. They brewed some of the first beer, and it was a big hit. They even had a goddess of brewing: Ninkasi. Here’s a Sumerian beer-drinking song:
Let the heart of the fermenting vat be our heart!
What makes your heart feel wonderful,
Makes also our heart feel wonderful.
Our liver is happy, our heart is joyful.
You poured a libation over the brick of destiny,
You placed the foundations in peace and prosperity.
May Ninkasi live together with you!
Let her pour for you beer and wine,
Let the pouring of the sweet liquor resound pleasantly for you!
In the reed buckets there is sweet beer,
I will make cupbearers, boys, and brewers stand by,
While I turn around the abundance of beer,
While I feel wonderful, I feel wonderful,
Drinking beer, in a blissful mood,
Drinking liquor, feeling exhilarated,
With joy in the heart and a happy liver–
While my heart full of joy,
And my happy liver I covered with a garment fit for a queen!
The heart has often been identified as the site of emotion. “Harden not your hearts”, the Hebrew prophets said. Interestingly, as Nietzsche relates, the early Scandinavians also used the image of a hard heart, but as something desirable:
“Wotan placed a hard heart in my breast,” says an old Scandinavian Saga: it is thus rightly expressed from the soul of a proud Viking. Such a type of man is even proud of not being made for sympathy; the hero of the Saga therefore adds warningly: “He who has not a hard heart when young, will never have one.”
From the UNIX fortune utility: “Your heart is pure, and your mind clear, and your soul devout.” The older version of this utility had some good zingers like “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” It also produced the ominous observation: “There’s no life on the other planets because their scientists were more advanced than ours.”
Maybe we didn’t come from another planet, but what if we were influenced by extraterrestrials? Sci-fi flight of imagination: a dying, technologically advanced race finds our planet, chooses a suitable species, then re-engineers it to be able to host their intelligence. “God” making man in his own image, and returning from time to time to check on the farm. Now don’t be such a skeptic (except for you) — it could happen. You can’t completely rule it out. Just like Santa Claus.
Or not. Science has perfectly good explanations for why we evolved the way we did, as science always does — even though those explanations grow outdated and get replaced with new ones year by year. One trouble with science is that you can never gather enough data. The biggest problem, though, is that science relies on a very consistent model of cause and effect, which (as Hume suggested) can’t be proven. But it’s a convenient model, in that it allows us to explain and predict a lot of what happens, while (conveniently) ignoring the fringe cases. Most of us figure that the “unexplainable” really is explainable, if we only had enough data. But what if our whole system of explanation is marred — the concept of cause and effect merely a somewhat unfocused eyeball gazing on the world and providing its own interpretation? It could miss a lot. But trying to do without it would be like going completely blind. You’d have to rely on other senses.
My grandfather (Sterling W. Camden, Jr.) was a barnstormer, airport manager, pilot trainer, Eastern Airlines pilot, and Executive Vice President of the ALPA before his death in 1953.
Six years later, I was born. Looking back, it seems like he only just missed me. But when I was young, it seemed like his death was a whole lifetime before my birth. That “mirror year” perception thing again: now my mirror year reaches to his birth year: 1913.
My father (Sterling W. Camden, III) idolized his father, and told me many stories of his father’s life and times. Once he told me that his father had told him a story that he shouldn’t tell anyone else. Now that both of them have passed away, I think it’s safe to relate it.
My grandfather and his co-pilot were flying their signature Douglas DC-3, apparently without passengers. Suddenly a large cigar-shaped something appeared beside them, maintained their speed for a few seconds, then disappeared. The co-pilot looked at my grandfather. His gaze was reciprocated in silence. Then my grandfather said, “We didn’t see anything.” They never reported it, for fear of losing their careers.
I’m tempted to believe this story, because my grandfather never sought recognition for it, but instead kept it a secret. Unable to hold it in completely, he trusted it to his son, who told it to me. Whether he and his co-pilot saw an alien vessel, an illusion, some other phenomenon, or even a shared hallucination — I believe the report I received.
About this time in my thoughts, Halley and I returned to our home. Time to get to work.