THE ATOMIC PRINCIPLE
Dissolution and Emergence
“It’s chemistry, brother, chemistry!
There’s no help for it, your reverence,
you must make way for chemistry.”
Everything is dust. Our lives even are dust – though we continue to imagine we are something more. From the moment we awake from the nothing we were, to the something we are, we sense there is something more. Something more than dust. All we need is some quiet to remember the truth. All we need is to go alone where nothing supports our vain suppositions. Our dream falls to pieces then. Our imagination is shattered. The wind blows. The sun bakes. Stupid ants march across the sands to the frantic beat and pace of their own imagined drummer, sounding the call to action of ant-like desire and purpose. Stupid ants. To what end their vain endeavor? Look, a pair of ants have discovered ahead a dead butterfly. See how they struggle with the enormous corpse; one ant pulls this way while the other tugs that. Slowly they move towards the nest, wearing out their bodies in the process, ready to die for this mad effort of purpose. Mad to my mind. They are simply stupid, animated dust. Six legs plus jaws and eyes and antenna for the purpose of one thing—to survive. But not even their own survival is any matter, as they will gladly, ignorantly, blindly, die just trying. All that matters is this other dust—this other butterfly dust—this dead dust.
I try to remember that I too am dust. I am composed of dust just like ants. I am animated like the ants to a dust-like purpose which does not seem so to me.
More dust is the sandcastle life we construct to house and maintain our contrived sense of purpose. A home of sand. A family of sand. Love and meaning…all sand. Just look at the deep past where everything is dust and even what is not dust will soon become dust. Dust to dust after all. But never mind being dust. Life is still worth living. Just do not expect anything more than dust in the end. Dust to dust, you know. I will live now like animated dust; joyful and grateful that I merely am, happy to be alive, expecting nothing more, knowing soon there will be—I will be—so much less. Dust to dust, at last.
Sometimes I will hold a fistful of sand or gravel from the desert and remember that I am desert also. Even my mind and my best thoughts and my love and all emotions and memories are atomic at their core; just atoms spinning and collected and electric and full of thought and love and emotion. I’ve no reason to believe there is any deeper or greater core to who I am. There is no ghost in my machine, no soul behind my thoughtful eyes, just sand and dust and gravel and atoms, all the way back.
My slower footsteps may not delay the orbit of the sun
How much distance do we travel when we stand still? How far and fast do we go while asleep in our beds? And how hasty our journey even within the grave, or dispelled to atoms from the chimney of the funeral flame? We move always... We are forever on the go. There is no stopping our forward progress away from the point of universal origin. We are forever moving outward and away from everything, and towards the same end. We can never stop. And so, too, am I moving now away from you. Bit by bit–though we hold hands and promise one another eternity–eternity speaks otherwise; though forever cannot issue a single word should it have the will or capacity to even try. Such range as the end is utterly beyond us, though the stuff of what we now are will surely be there when forever arrives. Only we ourselves will never get to the state and condition where everything must one day go. Even if we stop moving, you and I will one day arrive. All of us. No matter how fast or slow we go. Each of us. But never us.
Life at the atomic level
I expect my consciousness is a connect-the-dots affair; a consequence of some trillions of atoms gathered and enlivened through the energy of our nearby star; energy cascading down pathways of chemistry from order towards disarray; assembling matter along the way into blood, muscle and bone; energized by a consequent force called life; driven by an emergent awareness of environment and self; to gain the upper hand on living; to stay alive and carry on; to know something of myself and of others; to even celebrate life and fear death—a consequence of some trillions of atoms.
A lattice of empty space
Born, alive, and living.
From a lattice
Of empty space
And so, I'll go on thus alive and aware for my fourscore years and change. I'll do some things along the way which the lattice of atoms suggests I should: find a mate, make a baby, do some work, write some words, and perhaps reflect upon the sun setting into the sea. And then the energy will stop. My lattice of atoms will cease their assembled action, and fall to pieces, and go their separate way—trillions of tiny pieces, broken and scattering, with no record or memory of their past work, just trillions of little bits jostling away into a darkening night, Brownian motion always, at every level, the slowing movement of frozen energy grown colder still with the passage of life.
And these thoughts I will remember as I begin now another day. And tomorrow, I will remember these thoughts again: as a reminder of what I really am, and really am...not.
Notes from my muse
Encountering a flash flood in the desert is a little like spotting a meteor hurtling through the atmosphere. The event is sudden, brief and may happen when we least expect it. I’ve only twice actually met a flash flood while it was in progress, though I’ve many times arrived on scene a few hours or a day after the waters have receded. The normally bone-dry arroyo in this video displays ample evidence of a recent flash flood, with the wet ground, freshly cut sand banks, and lines of plant debris along the edge of the ephemeral stream. One day I’ll meet again a flood in process, and witness the punctuated event which is responsible for much of the desert landscape’s gradual decay.
My adventures in Japan were under the constant accompaniment of water: be in snow or rain falling on my head, waterfalls splashing upon my body, fast-moving streams gliding clear and clean over bare feet hiking a forgotten sacred stream, or simply making the sound water makes, though incessant, constant, forever flowing. I remember wasabi farmers at Nagaguma (the village of the "Long Bear") who plumbed their village for water by boring a big pipe into the side of a solid rock mountain, which effort somehow liberated such a prodigious flow of biting cold fresh water that every faucet in the village had no need of a tap for more than one hundred years (and counting), as water simply flowed always, 24 hours a day, through every basin in every kitchen, bathroom, workroom and garden in the whole village. As I witnessed that particular village die over the course of a decade, I could never quite tell if the farmhouses I knew were quite empty, as though the farmer and his wife might be gone, their faucets continued a lively babble of wet chatter from deep within the darkened structure. Indeed, though I expect Nagaguma will become a Japanese ghost village within the next five years, the sound of water there will continue for decades, or maybe centuries, to come, though all human need or capacity to appreciate this abundant resource will have utterly dried and withered to nothing.
So, returning to the USA, it took some time for me to adjust to the absence of water in the desert landscape. An absence which stands in contrast to that other land I once knew, and which is now plagued by its own absence of a sort; an absence of human existence, and the carrying on of our species in amazing places we no longer choose to live. But now that I put it that way, maybe the abandoned mountain villages of Japan, and the neglected ghost towns of the California desert, have more in common than I originally thought…
Imagine my surprise to be walking alone through open desert and then to suddenly come upon the very leading edge of an ephemeral river. With no rain clouds in the sky, I was clueless about the source of the stream, which may have had its origin tens of miles into the mountains with a brief and heavy downpour. My immediate concern was that I might be standing at the leading edge of a flash flood, and before turning on the camera I carefully surveyed the wash above the stream for any sign of a churning wet debris wall thundering my way. Satisfied that I was witnessing the end—and not the beginning—of a flash flood, I proceeded to record on video the strange sight of an unexpected desert river disappearing as quickly into the sand as it had appeared from the sky.