There’s been a lot of comment on the duckbill platypus genome. As usual, looking at the molecules of the spiral helix is quite different from looking at that cute little beast that resembles my cats fixed up for Halloween. Every one of these re-framings of what things “are” leave us standing at the edge of a paradigm precipice looking out over space we hardly dreamed existed. We stare at the vast expanse of time and the realization of all the things that can happens over aeons, the pressure of galactic-scale events changing the world forever. “All is whirl.” Humans are NOT the center. Humans are no more special than platypusses or cats (just pusses).
Scientists noticed some time ago, on a much smaller timescale than dinosaurs that about the time the glaciers began to draw back to the north after reaching into northern Montana, there were hunters here on the prairie using Clovis points. Then they disappeared and so did their prey: mammoths and other mega-mammals. The scientists, who had probably just filled their elk tags for the fall, suggested that Clovis points were so effective that the hunters had simply eaten all the mammoths. But a high school girl here in Montana spent the last year or so looking for evidence of a meteorite impact at the crucial break in prehistory, and she found it. The mammoths -- and the American horses of the time -- were killed by the darkening of the earth caused by the meteorite impact. The evidence still clings to their bones.
I caught just a snippet of a radio speech last night: someone was saying that if an asteroid more than a mile across hit the earth it would not extinguish all life, but it WOULD extinguish all the fancy cultural amenities: transportation, electronic and wire communication, air traffic, and so on. Some humans would survive. In other words, this is the same apocalyptic scenario that our writers and movie scripters seem to be exploring. Earthquakes, volcanoes, cyclones, floods, the possibility that the planet’s magnetic poles might trade places (It’s happened before!) and a host of other uncontrollable events -- plague, drought, famine, war, die-offs (frogs, bees, bats) are all around us.
Some say it’s safe to predict such things since they are continuous phenomena that are always happening somewhere, but they sharpen in the presence of immediate phenomena. For instance, this is a late, cold spring that keeps the gas bill from shrinking and doesn’t let the crops come out of dormancy. Or here’s another on the molecular level: diabetes 2. As research begins to escape the rigid confines of the pharm corporations, the evidence strongly suggests that the problem is the inundation of pesticide, herbicide and fertilizing molecules we’ve been pouring out onto the land. Can’t see ‘em, can’t smell ‘em unless there are lots and they’re aromatic, too tiny to measure without special instruments and yet our genomes can’t adjust fast enough for some of us to survive. We begin to die wrapped in fat even as our cells pant for more glucose that can’t get through the cell walls because the receptors are plugged up with man-made molecules meant to mimic hormones, which is how they kill bugs.
The great advantage of humans have over bugs is that culture can evolve fast: we can eat in a way that doesn’t flood our systems with glucose, we can plow, plant and reap different crops, we can change chicken/hog raising practices in SE Asia -- the ones that allow flu to morph into viruses humans can catch. After all, now that we understand genetics and molecular metabolism, so many things are less mysterious, more controllable. Or at least predicable -- up to a point.
Another “tiny bits” revolution has completely changed the culture in content, access, form, message and speed. I’m talkin’ digital media. I bet my retirement (in fact, most of my economic plan for life) on the idea that I would write books that might not make me rich and famous, but that would provide a living, or at least a supplement. Now that I’ve retired early on minimal income, I’m trapped between Bush’s killer economy and the complete scrambling of publishing as we know it.
All the assumptions that we learned in high school turn out to be 19th century phenomena, based on printing machinery that had to physically smack ink onto paper and then glue the paper into a permanent stack of numbered sheets that a person could hold in their hands and turn one at a time. BOOK! Now the same content is electronic, dancing bits of energy -- as likely to be a picture as words. Capable of packing a whole set of movies onto a little disc of plastic. The whole business of learning to read, absorbing cultural values about “the canon” and what it means, accumulating a library, being sponsored by a publisher -- it’s all just irrelevant. What does the Third World want? Not books: cell phones.
The writers are not in as much financial trouble as the musicians and composers, whose sounds go everywhere without any payment coming back to them. And the songs that become popular are ever more a matter of intensity, passion, cynicism, underground -- dark and noisy stuff. And the art? Where did it go?
All this raises questions for farmers, authors, and consumers. How should we manage our lives to make them safe enough to be endurable, economically viable enough to keep us eating, inspiring enough that we don’t wake up screaming in the night? Don’t ask God. My seminary just made the claim that they are changing “right down to their marrow.” How are they doing this? Calling in two prosperous, popular, Big Ego guys -- which was the way the seminary was founded, a strategy that soon took them to disaster. Institutions are doomed to repeat their histories until they fall apart. God is an institution.
So, sitting up in bed at 3AM with two snoring cats, how do I get back to sleep? Here I am, an old lady in a decrepit house among poplars knotted on the ends with buds too cold to open, in a little village of mostly older folks in the midst of vast still ungreen fields, under a crescent moon like something dropped off a charm bracelet. Here’s an image: just up the street where Lake Francis adjoins the little airport, the geese are paired up and incubating eggs. Think of those warm eggs, packed with genes that include those of dinosaurs and duck-billed platypuses, destined to fly cross-continent, sheltered under downy breasts. Maybe this will be the day I hear a meadowlark.