By spring 1971, my dormitory wall had the usual art befitting college freshmen ─ a compulsory black light poster (Escher’s “Dream Mantis”), W.C. Fields, quotes from Langston Hughes and both ends of longevity described in wall hangings. Alleviating academic pressures, one philosophized about “growing taller by walking through the trees;” the other how “butterflies, by not counting days but moments, had time enough.” Holidays, too, are perfect times to ponder contingencies of existence, how all life wins a cosmic lottery to be here. But once another calendar ticks down, it all seems fleeting. Neil Diamond’s “Done Too Soon” nails the feeling so well.
The 14-year international Human Genome Project, which identified 3 billion or so DNA base pair sequences and 20,000 human genes (same as a roundworm) suggests maybe 10 to the 10,000th-power Homo sapiens combinations could exist. Yet, there are plant and other animal genomes much bigger than ours. A loblolly pine, for instance, is 7-times larger, axolotl salamanders 10-times. Even for a redwood Sequoia, winning craps against infinite and entropy for 2,000-years seems ephemeral against a stochastic universe with only periodic equilibria and order. Our sun is 4.6 billion years old. Based on comparable stars, its remaining years, before hydrogen runs out, could number 10 billion. In 5 billion years, turning into a red giant, the star’s core will shrink, and its outer layers will expand roughly to Mars, engulfing the Earth. Homo sapiens, of course, will have disappeared long before that ─ no surprise, given our political stupidity and decades-long procrastinations over anthropogenic climate change.
The Arctic, warming 2-times faster than the rest of the globe, hit 100ºF last year in Siberia. Permafrost is melting, meaning even greater greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane. The ice shelf holding back Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier (about the size of Florida) is expected to be gone in 5 years. When Thwaites slips into the Southern Ocean, global sea levels are expected to rise 2 to 3 feet. Adios Ocean Beach Park and Misquamicut, sayonara Bangladesh, Miami and Norfolk. Even barring our own destructive tendencies, rogue asteroids or other-than-manmade catastrophes, the average mammalian species lasts 1 to 2 million years (invertebrates 5-10 million). Billions of years from now, it won’t be humans watching the sun’s demise, but creatures as different from us as we are from amoeba and cockroaches.
Most living things, save chemosynthetic organisms in the Bathypelagic (aphotic) zones of oceans, are animated stardust powered by the sun. Indeed, the whole of existence is special, winners at evolution’s roulette table, worthy conduits of life, who for the past 3.6 billion years chanced to pass their chips along to future generations. Except for “midnight zones” in deep oceans, where only bioluminescence provides light, energy for everything else is derived from the sun. The first, perhaps wisest religions, made that connection. Many were animist because nonhuman animal behaviors were synchronous with natural occurrences, patterns and cycles. Early humans learned from and exalted them. As primary food gatherers, women were often revered for their procreativity and biological rhythms coinciding with the moon. That’s why birth stories in mangers, witnessed and awaited by menageries are so compelling.
As a kid, every Christmas tree cut down and variegated wrapping torn to shreds and stuffed in garbage bags turned my holiday excitement into melancholy. I lobbied for artificial trees or, as relatives in Budapest do, fir trees grown in pots outdoors, brought inside each year for decorating. Both approaches continue in my family today. Also, I long-ago began saving swatches of patterns from everyone’s gift wrap, regardless of household or gathering, assembling what is now a considerable yuletide collection. Whatever your foible, savor your holidays. With each new winter solstice, rejoice in retellings of inexhaustible holy oil, Frosty the Snowman, Scrooge, the Grinch, Rudolph; George Bailey. Count them as blessings the way butterflies count moments, so we, as they, will have time enough.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.