Monday, December 13, 2010

Stars: Musings of a Cosmic Speck

Note: this essay was written during my season at Grand Teton National Park in the Fall of 2008. My writing style has changed quite a bit since then, but I think this is still worth sharing...

It is evening, here in Grand Teton National Park. I sit in my one-room cabin (where you can eat, cook, pee, and sleep all in the same general vicinity…). The wind howls outside, weather coming in, heralding the Fall, the coming of the cold, and the hammerblow that is winter in Jackson Hole.

Despite the wind’s ferocity, the sky is crystalline in its clarity and the stars shine with an icy blue intensity. Looking up, (or is it down?) I have the sensation of falling into the vast expanse and the wind whips around me, intensifying the feeling. Looking at the icy blue pinpoints of light, and the gaseous splash of the Milky Way, I have that feeling of smallness, of emptiness. The fact that I can live, breathe, think, and function in the face of that infinite vastness, is nothing short of amazing: a testament to human arrogance and denial.

What can I say? We are an arrogant race, the fact that we think that we matter at all in the scope of the universe, that we can actually alter our climate enough to cause lasting damage bears witness to this. The planet will check itself, it always has, it was created that way. The truth of the matter is, when we have gone too far, this awful, beautiful, perfect creation that is nature, will simply rid itself of us like a dog scratching at a flea. Thankfully, we have God to collect our souls when it all goes to Hell in a handbasket.

The fact that we matter one whit to the creator of the icy blackness which I gaze into now is nothing short of miraculous. It is a privilege of which we are certainly not worthy. I had a long and involved discussion with a colleague of mine, just a short while ago, while out on the trout stream north of our housing area (where all good discussions should take place), about the hopelessness of our current state of affairs. From our dependence on oil to the failure of politics in general, we covered all bases, and differed in our opinion on many points (us stubborn christo-liberals are hard to please).

Some very good points were made on both sides, and the most interesting point of conversation was on the ‘green movement’. I’ll be the first to admit that the green movement has made too many mistakes, we have gotten too preachy, too political, shamefully arrogant and greedy; a failing of much of America in general. Like the mainstream churches, we preach a philosophy which we do not follow. We are hypocrites in tie-dye. The worst sort of shallow, we view the average person as uninformed and stupid, in need of a view into the ‘light’ of our message. There are many parallels to be drawn between the green movement and the church. Like the church, we can stand on our soapbox all day and preach conservation and the skeptics will simply listen politely (or not) and ask ‘what’s in it for us? Why should this matter to me?’ The simple answer for the green movement is that it won’t matter to you, but your grandchildren will be very grateful. This, like the church’s promise of eternal life, but only after physical death, rings hollow from our hypocritical soapbox.

Have you ever noticed the people who have had their lives changed by something, Christ or otherwise; the people that reflect peace, serenity, and security in their day to day life? Notice that it is these people that have the most effect; these people can say little or nothing at all and still their message rings in your ears long after you have parted company. They are not hypocrites, they are just making their way in the world in the best way they can.

In the green movement, these people have realized that they are worth about as much as a rat turd in this vast, cold universe. And yet it gives them peace. The idea gives me peace, that’s for sure. Especially as a christo-liberal, I get to experience the awe of looking into the yawning abyss of our unimportance, but I have God hold my hand the whole time, lest I fall in, fall into the freezing stars.

But why, if we matter so little, if the earth is just going to shrug its shoulders when it tires of us, why then should the green movement prevail, why then should we not hedonistically burn the planet to the ground around us in one great orgy of pleasure and entitlement? Come the rapture, it won’t matter right? The answer is a complicated one. From our soapbox, we can say that going green is simply the right thing to do, that as environmentalists, Christian or otherwise, it is our duty. My friend says that people won’t listen until there’s strain on their pocketbook, this is true but it shouldn’t be. Usually, that sort of strain appears after the problem has already reached crisis point and trying to address it then is like getting a vaccination after the symptoms have already appeared.

Why then should we continue with the green movement? My friend puts it well, in that the green movement should be the ‘common sense’ movement and not be a lunatic fringe, but a part of everyday life. It seems common sense to us that are already part of it, I love my life in the little cabin eating soup and the occasional fresh salad if I can afford it (Organic? You bet!). But the average person cannot see the sense in this very well, and being raised in the shadow of the entitled American dream, it is difficult to shift gears. A defense of the American dream is that we Americans earned it, every penny; while that may be true, it is not true elsewhere, where people can work 10 times as hard as us ‘hardworking’ Americans and still barely get by. So, rather acting like we’ve sacrificed so much to earn our lifestyle, we should accept it as the privilege it is and use it wisely and simply.

I have a difficult time seeing how one can be happy in a huge house surrounded by possessions, things of human make and manufacture. They are such poor substitutes, all art is but imitation of things already wrought by the master artist. My home (for now) is this park, my vaulted ceiling is the cobalt sky held in place by the soaring peaks which fill the view from behind my house. My entertainment comes in the form of a good book and a steaming mug of tea, or the exhilaration of a fish taking my fly in a quiet hole of a forgotten creek. These are simple pleasures, not the stimulatory overload that defines most modern entertainments; that sensory bombardment that leaves our synapses fried and quivering in some gelatinous corner of our brains. If people could be shown the joy and serenity there is in living simply and lightly, they wouldn’t feel like the greenies were trying to take away their possessions, their TVs, their SUVs; but rather that we were offering them a gift, an alternative, a sense of serenity and fulfillment. So I will argue for conservation with the best of them and I will continue to stand on my soapbox, but if I can win over one person just from them watching me and seeing the peace and serenity that I reflect in living simply, it will all be worthwhile.

Regardless, the stars will continue to shine and no matter the outcome of our small, blue planet, they always will. For now, I will just sit and listen to the fall winds, and think about where I want to fish tomorrow…

-Charlie Kolb, Jenny Lake district, Grand Teton National Park

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