It’s raining for the first time in two weeks here at the college, but the soft patter on the old roof provides the perfect ambiance for reflecting upon my stay. We had our second bonfire last night to commemorate our time together. Each of us threw a small pine cone into the flame to signify an old habit we’d outgrown, or to inspire a future goal. Then we spoke one-by-one about our favorite moments.
Some were especially moved by the deep time walk that Stephen lead us through along the beach near Dartmouth. It was a 4.5 km trek meant to represent the 4.5 billion year history of the earth.
Every step we took (approx. half a meter) represented half a million years. It was about a kilometer walk before the first life emerged, and the journey was about 4/5ths of the way over by the time the first metazoa appeared.* Stephen had to get out his tape measurer as the walk concluded to show us where homo sapiens appeared on the scene, less than a foot from the end. All of recorded history fits into a centimeter, and the Industrial Revolution began 1/4 of a millimeter from the end.
For me, one of the more significant moments occurred while we were walking along the granite hills of Dartmoor. A large part of our disconnection from the earth, I believe, has to do with our exclusive fixation on the human world. It’s no surprise that we’d be most interested in members of our own species, but while walking along an old tin mine path, our group encountered about two dozen cows who seemed intensely interested in us. I gazed at them, and they gazed back.
We were silent as we walked through the herd, and our human world fell away as the heifer’s stole our undivided attention (and we theirs). It was a brief moment of interspecies communication. Soon enough, the bull began to get grumpy, and we decided we’d better be on our way. Gaia has many eyes belonging to creatures of all shapes and sizes. The eyes of cows, an animal domesticated perhaps 10,000 years ago, probably see quite deeply into our human nature. I realized I couldn’t say the same about my insight into them. I though then about my eating habits, and felt guilty for treating them more like means than ends. They give their life (or rather, it is taken from them) for my appetite, but beef purchased from grocery store refrigerators seems so distant from the being I then saw behind those jeweled eyes. All the meals at Schumacher are vegetarian, and though I must admit I haven’t felt as satiated as usual, this experience has forced me to reflect deeply on the ethics of eating. Can one develop Gaian consciousness while still feasting on the blood of fellow animals? Aside from the moral implications, there are also practical reasons to avoid beef, as it takes approximately 100 times the amount of grain and water to feed a single cow as it would if I skipped that layer of the food chain by sticking to vegetables. Not to mention the methane they release, which accounts for more green house gas emissions than automobiles and factories combined, according to some estimates.
The bonfire glowed late into the evening, and as the embers began to fade, I found I needed to share a feeling that began welling up within me. It seemed as though each of us, having come from 6 continents to attend this course on Gaia, was now responsible for returning home as a seed which might be planted in the hearts and minds of all our friends and family. We are all so privileged to have had this opportunity to deepen our knowledge, but unless it allows us to grow into a wiser way of life, it will all have been for naught.
The gong has been rung, which means my last dinner here is ready. The first chapter of this adventure is coming to a close. Sunday I fly to Dublin to meet Kelleigh and celebrate my first Independence Day over seas.
Wide is the world, to rest or roam,
And early ’tis for turning home:
Plant your heel on earth and stand,
And let’s forget our native land.
– A. E. Housman
*While writing this blog, I received an email from my school’s listserve. Apparently the next issue of Nature will detail the discovery of fossilized multicellular life found in sediments more than 2 billion years old. This entirely re-writes the history of the early earth! From a Science Daily article published yesterday:
While studying the paleo-environment of a fossil-bearing site situated near Franceville in Gabon in 2008, El Albani and his team unexpectedly discovered perfectly preserved fossil remains in the 2.1 billion-year-old sediments. They have collected more than 250 fossils to date, of which one hundred or so have been studied in detail. Their morphology cannot be explained by purely chemical or physical mechanisms. These specimens, which have various shapes and can reach 10 to 12 centimeters, are too big and too complex to be single-celled prokaryotes or eukaryotes. This establishes that different life forms co-existed at the start of the Proterozoic, as the specimens are well and truly fossilized living material.