I wasn’t totally sold on getting a puppy for several reasons – chief among them is that puppies are a lot of work. I’ll admit, though, my wife made a good choice for the family. Coors plays well with Sierra, he’s been a good comfort to my wife, and he’s made the boy incredibly happy. We’ve put Eli in charge of a lot of the puppy chores as well, so he’s learning a lot of responsibility. I reckon the brindle pup’s cuddles, kisses, and play, help me too – there’s not too little to say about mental health these days.
“Ah!” Eli screams from the back.
“What, what is it?” I cough out a mid tea slurp.
“Eli what’s going on, honey?” Katie leans forward in her seat while eyeing the rearview mirror.
“Coors puked!” Eli yells.
“Oh no! We have a carsick puppy.” Katie then laughs a little. “Sorry he puked on you.”
“Did he puke on you, or just on the blanket?” I inquire.
Eli shifts Coors off his lap and sets him in the middle seat. Pushing the blanket to the floor, he inspects his clothes. The boy offers a thumbs up and ensures,
“I’m good. Just the blanket, none on my clothes.”
As Dolly strums and sings we drive in the dark morning through pastoral Tennessee. Under a sky full of burning stars, along wooden country fences, swaying fields of tall grass, log cabin homesteads, and old red barns, I wonder about America. There’s a sense of freedom out here on the road that feels good. I’m increasingly worried about the nation these days. In these times we experience a serfdom to industrialism, enhanced civilian surveillance, growing authoritarianism, and a renewed pseudo-patriotism, or adherence, perhaps even indifference, to a creeping governmentality – 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault’s idea that power structures use their influence, or their monopoly of violence, to shape, guide, or dictate the conduct of a “free” people. Further, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and a distrust, even disgust, of intellectualism is sold readily by snake-oil peddlers these days. This is a proven burden and hurdle to accepting truth. Rather difficult to evolve our institutions – federal, state, and local governance, along with private enterprise – for collective action without truth. Snake-oil is snake-oil, lies are lies, and nonsense is nonsense, except when they kill. Conspiracy thinking and authoritarian governance, especially when advanced by all the powers of the highest level of the executive branch of the United States Government, is an existential threat.
In the darkness, though, a piercing light bears everywhere. Here we are, in the 21st century, witnessing social movements, activism, science, technology, and simple kindness refocus and achieve our collective hopes and dreams. There’s a weight to our darkness and it lies heavy on our future. But this just means there’s also a challenge, a goal, to push through these ominous times, so light may steer our aspirations towards the heavens. We’ll meet the times with grace, humor, and love – I hope. Living through history is exciting and worrisome – where are we going, America? Our witness will be the sky. We have nowhere to go but everywhere under these stars.
As we pull onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, I fondly recall memories from my youth. I spent a lot of time up here in high-school and later teenage years rambling around and getting into trouble with my childhood friends. The Parkway travels the foothills of the northern section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With numerous small “trails,” fire towers, and pull offs, the road offers great views and plenty of opportunity for youthful summer nights full of music and unsupervised fun.
Today, all facilities are shut down across the national park – no toilets, no government provided TP, closed visitor centers, shuttered information booths, dry water fountains, and empty concessions. I like things this way out here. Perhaps when humans travel to wilderness areas, we should expect the need to bring our own food and water. Seems today we can learn all about the mountains, their different forests and wildlife, without even having to wander past a parking lot with shitty wi-fi inside park boundaries. Without facilities for a while maybe park visitors will discover solitude and quiet, or feel the importance of sadness and loneliness. Be good to truly disconnect, to feel like an animal in a wild land, instead of constant stimulation and convenience. Instead of sitting in traffic around modern facilities, perhaps folks may find adventure, discomfort, eeriness – something primal and grounding in the great out there.
The mind wanders easy, in such a way, between youthful memories and the importance of wilderness experiences, in these ancient woodlands. Without the slightest feeling of hypocrisy, I’m enjoying our ride on a nice, paved road through the Parkway. The foothills pass a series of low mountains and hills that seem to rest on valleys, sing on slopes, and thrust into peaks. The foothills here build on each other, like wave after wave, as each level rises then expands into the steep slopes of a timeless, humbled, terrain. The rocks here are Cambrian in age – sandstones, siltstones, and shales that range between 300 million to 500 million years of existence. Together these rocks build mountains full of narrow ridges, bulky rock outcrops, long stretches of folded and faulted rock, and an impressive prominence of stone in an ecological community dominated by fresh green plants, opening buds, sweet blossoms, radiant blooms, and all the colors, music, and delight of spring.
We’ve cruised the parkway for about twenty minutes, and suddenly Katie and I eyeball the perfect spot. Katie softly steers off to the left side of the road and parks easily in a somewhat large, empty lot. I step out of the car and the air feels cold and wonderful. I pull my hood over my head and put on my Sherpa lined flannel jacket. Behind us, our view opens to human civilization with all the lights and pulsing activity in the towns of Maryville, Alcoa, and even Knoxville off in the distance. In front of us, though, lie our origins. A small bit of rural country spreads across, followed by the Appalachian wilderness. All around us is the competing moth-swarm – connection to land on one side juxtaposed against the progress of an advanced technological society. Above, the stars shine bright and magical in colorful, cosmic dust. Though over an hour until sunrise, the sky is so bright the heavens burn like candles, flash as paparazzi, and when the Milky Way pops, we simply say “ahh!”
Katie flips our Mexican sarape’s into the air, and the woven blankets unroll before lying on the ground. Eli runs in the dark, laughing, jumping, and yelling in wildness under the purples, blues, reds, and all the brilliant, pulsing, radiance of the backlit canopy in a joyous sky. Sierra roams free with the boy, Coors is leashed with Katie and relaxes on our blankets. Steadying the finder-scope, and then focusing the eyepiece, I find Jupiter in our night sky with the traveling telescope and call Eli over for a look. The planet appears gray. Under the lens, the stratified planet is both ghostly and beautiful. At this moment, three meteors flash across the sky.
“Ahh! Did you see that Dad?” Eli asks, wearing his winter coat and hat, with a big grin from ear to ear.
“Yes, I did, son. Pretty cool huh?”
“Sure is, Dad. I hope one day, when humans live out there, that they know I helped them get there. I want to be an astronaut. I want them to know I am their ancestor.”
“That is really great, Eli.”
I don’t know what else to say in response. I’m not sure I can say anything else. He’s always surprised us with his speech and awareness. He’s talked of ancestry a good bit, stemming from a conversation he had with his teacher at Montessori school. A great deal is wrapped up in that five-year-old’s statement. My heart swells with pride, love, and a sadness I can’t put into words. My son gives me a smile, then joins his mom to stargaze on our blankets as she readies our breakfast. Silently, both happy and grieved for his youthful wonder, I watch my family as they eat for a little while before studying the cosmos once more.
A life like ours is unique. Our species (even more, all multicellular life) would not exist if not for a solitary, fleeting chance-event on the scale of the entire universe. Staring up at our galaxy, at all the bright other worlds floating in a cold darkness, I find it hard to imagine we are alone. Life is probable and likely out there somewhere. Intelligent life, though, the lives we enjoy, may just be a rare, once in the cosmos opportunity. Building complexity, the symbiotic relationships between different types of cells needed for multicellular life, is statistically improbable.
Staring out at the planets and other stars, I think of our flowering dogwood trees once more. Plants are a symbol of a living planet. In plant leaves we know cellular organelles use cosmic energy to manufacture sugar – but the story doesn’t end there. What’s the point of making a lot of carbohydrates if the manufactured molecules for energy aren’t consumed? Plants need to eat just as animals need to eat. Surprisingly, we use the same chemical pathway, cellular respiration, to feed ourselves. Plants, animals, fungi, the odd protista, and many microbes, use oxygen as a means to extract energy from food. This process of respiration is billions of years old. This ancient metabolic pathway is universal in complex life. Respiration comes from a single freak event – trillions of bacteria, eating trillions of bacteria, for billions of years, until one day a consumed microbe wasn’t digested. As a result, the eukaryote, an advancement to build organisms whose cells have a nucleus enclosed with membranes, was born. This is the very idea of endosymbiosis – a co-evolutionary, mutualistic existence between two separate life forms.
Over deep time, the surviving microbe became the organelle we call mitochondria. All complex life, the entire domain of eukaryotic life, including dogwood trees and human beings, utilizes mitochondria to harness the power of oxygen. Without this organelle all life on Earth would be unicellular. Most genetic material, the entirety of our human genome, for example, is packaged into chromosomes within the nucleus of our cells. Mitochondria have their own DNA, however, because they are at their core an ancient bacterium. The endosymbiont theory helps us understand how complex life emerged from this chance event. In the cold, black outback of interstellar space, all available evidence suggests life on Earth is once in the cosmos rare.
Good and necessary for folks to have a planetary experience every once in a while. Fittingly, today happens to be Earth Day. We don’t go out of our way to make a big production of Earth Day or anything, but I do take some time each year to think like a species, as part of a whole, on this day – what will everything be like when we are gone? One day I’ll die and my molecules will be recycled into the Earth – so will all of us. Human civilization will crumble into dust and one day Earth will spin on without us – what then?
Some folks find these questions silly. Mortality, the fragility and chance nature of existence, are topics usually avoided for consideration in our society. Further, some folks find such thinking dangerous – as if the Earth will keep spinning along and everything will be fine forever and how dare someone question this? Suspicion of environmental thought, and days like Earth Day, usually follow a need to praise human civilization, technology, prosperity, and progress. Further, these ideas question the need to care for the resources we exploit to make human life better. Importantly, that our dominion over these resources, the Abrahamic views of our relationship with the natural world, is just and purposeful and should go unquestioned. Environmental thinking, though, in my view, does not despoil human civilization, but celebrates the alleviation of poverty and the possibility of a new and lasting sustainable peace.
Environmental thinking simply reminds us if society cuts itself off from the roots by destroying the wild, said society betrays the very principle of civilization. To drive species into extinction, to take a livable environment from future generations, to risk a rare, once in the cosmos opportunity to enjoy beauty, form, and color, is nothing but extreme totalitarianism. So, too, the philosophies that preach otherwise, those of industrial progress and unlimited resource consumption, the philosophies of power and domination, in the words of Walt Whitman, “resist much, obey little.”
Environmental reason is very important today. We face an immediate environmental threat in the form of a pandemic, and the growing, all-too-dangerous and encompassing threat of climate change. Though these issues seem separate from one another, they are, in fact, linked. Climate change, for instance, alters the way human civilization relates to other species. This potentially raises risks to public and environmental health, especially in terms of infectious disease. The more civilization pushes into wilderness, as natural climate regulation is reduced by anthropogenic activity, a human dominance of land and all natural cycles, wildlife, both terrestrial and aquatic, currently migrate in response across the globe. These new migration patterns allow populations to mix that normally wouldn’t. This creates an opportunity for pathogens to find new hosts. Further, many of the causes of climate change, especially habitat loss in the form of deforestation, forces even more wildlife migration and increases the risk of pandemics.
With our current threat of COVID-19, while also considering pre-existing conditions, age, socioeconomic status, and quality of healthcare, research from Harvard University (Xiao et al., 2020), indicates people who live in a polluted environment, especially an environment with poor air quality, are more likely to die from the disease. Aside from the current pandemic, a long list of research indicates the habitat range of many viruses has expanded, as poor air quality leads to regional warming. Lyme disease, for example, and waterborne infectious diseases such as Vibrio parahaemolyticus, mosquito carried pathogens like the Zika virus, malaria, and dengue fever, are all spreading well outside their normal contagion zones due to changing climate conditions. Their warm habitats are expanding.
Over the last several decades, scientists have demonstrated a notable trend in a rise of infectious diseases. Most of these diseases affecting the human population came from wild animals. In the past century, human civilization has greatly raised demands upon nature. Conservationists agree that, as a result of this activity, we are currently living through a sixth mass extinction crisis. We’re losing species at a rate unseen since the extinction of large dinosaurs, thus terminating the age of these dinosaurs – the Mesozoic Era. This time, however, there is no asteroid – human activity is the culprit. This rapid extinction falls on the ultimate problem of habitat loss and a totalitarian view of human dominion over natural spaces. Climate change feeds habitat loss. As ecosystems are destroyed, resiliency is reduced, the self-regulation capacity of ecosystems becomes increasingly difficult, which alters suitable living places for different plants and animals. Throughout human history, our species has grown and adapted a partnership regarding the plants and animals around us. As climate changes, as our ecological communities falter, this disruption of natural systems will affect our health.
There are still those patches of light in the darkness, however. Science still offers a very optimistic dream of the future. Plenty of evidence suggests that with action we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change, but, in doing so, we will have to adopt an environmentality – an ambition of greatness to reconcile our relationship with the natural world, and, thus, our own governance. By practicing restoration ecology, a field that repairs damaged habitat, civilization can simultaneously produce new jobs that restore natural landscapes like the Australian wilderness, the plundered Amazon, and even the moonscapes left behind by strip mining right here in Appalachia.
I dream of a new preservationist movement that not only expands the global protection of wilderness, but also cultivates native plants and habitats in our own urban landscapes. Imagine a city full of wildlife corridors, rooftop gardens, wetlands along our rivers, and plant communities all around. This concept would let our advanced technological society prosper and heal the wounds of the Industrial Revolution. This type of future is possible, and not just because I’m a dreamer, but because the sciences, social and natural, offer us a pathway forward.
When my son talks of ancestors, I hope his life-dream is fulfilled. I hope we rise to our challenges and unleash all the creative power and inclined labor of human beings. I believe in a world of sustainable markets, mutual aid, relief, decent societies, and, finally, peace. Not the peace of dreamers, but an institutional peace, a real and lasting peace that makes life on Earth worth living – a peace for every child of humanity. Where are we going, America?
“The sun is coming up just over the horizon,” Katie whispers to Eli and catches my attention. “Should come right over the peak of that mountain over there.”
The sun, our star of life, is changing the Appalachian range all around us. Rising up, massive and splendid, over the ancient mountains in the east, our star shines on mist and fog that hugs the singing mountains. The air brightens, feels pure and perfect. Blue creeps into the sky as the sun touches rock and everywhere a radiant dawn molts into purple, red, and orange. Everything is lovely and wild. The lucid sweetness of spring is everywhere. The Appalachian Mountains themselves, ancient, magnificent, strange, inspiring, grotesque, possess an incredible amount of eerie beauty. Their stones and rock are exposed on steep cliffs, while their valleys and rolling ridges expose naked the grandness of life – all the flora and fauna of our special, mortal realm. Even covered in life, the observer finds evidence of a tilted, warped, broken, thrusted lithology formed by the pressures and processes of a dynamic planet. Ridge after ridge is crafted by erosion and weathering – producing an elemental land that’s existed before time and will stand long after. The intricate patterns of life, the grottoes, meadows, forests, faults, and passages – some well-traveled while others isolated and lonely – offer a grandeur unique to our living planetary rock. I feel as if I could run and jump into eternity, as if the holy void of creation rises just east, radiantly shining across anything and everything. I love it, I love it all – the boy, my wife, our wolves, the pines, grass, blooms, cold, fog, the melodies of birds, twilight to starlight, dawn’s shedding luminance, the portals and altars of ancient rock. Everything is deserving of rhapsody.
**Featured Image Source: photograph by Michal Mancewicz – Unsplash