Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Moment Everything Changed

B'reishit & Noach: Light, Cain, Abel, Babel

If you are looking for my Kinsey Sicks farewell essay, click here.

 There is so much for us to grieve now,
So much lost that we will never see again.
And yet so much still arising
That we have only begun to dream.

Larry Robinson

And then there was light.

It was sunrise on Highway 5, that long blaze of road stretching from Sacramento to LA. In the dark you are hypnotized; you are a rocket shot through the blackness of space, flying on instruments. But as the sun rises there is suddenly land stretching out, east to the horizon, west to the hills, south to the pinpoint where the road disappears. During this drought time, the color spectrum at dawn ranges from this brown to that brown, but with every possible shade of brown in between; and all washed in chilly blue that only later gives way to the yellow tones of day.

It was sunrise on Highway 5, and I was slapped across the kisser by the simple privilege of sight; the privilege of being privy to so much detail from such distance. I could see with complete casualness where it was rocky. Where there were orchards. Where the crop had been cleared and where it hadn't come in. A million bytes of data about things far beyond my physical reach, all taken in in an instant.

My mind wandered, as it only has permission to do on long road trips. I wondered how sight even came to be - evolutionarily speaking - since it does seem kind of miraculous. The advantage  and value of sight as we know it are obvious. But what about whatever came before sight, in earlier evolutionary stages? What was the advantage to those first "simple" organisms floating in the primordial soup of having a sensitivity to the light of the sun? You'd think it would be a distraction, even a danger. If you're feeling sunlight, don't you run the risk of drying out, immobile, on a rock? Could that in fact have been the advantage of evolving sensitivity to light? Enhanced ability to flee it? So how did it happen that some simple organisms - the ancestors of plant life - discovered they could use light to cook up their food? And at what point did our ancestors discovered that where there was light, there was also a good chance of finding those plant-y creatures to eat?

So somehow vision evolved. And then, somewhere along the way since, sight emerged (for us at least) as not just a means of scoring dinner, but as a way of appreciating the landscape ahead or a loved one at hand or a Leger on a museum wall. That interests me. The emergence of human qualities that no longer strictly serve an evolutionary purpose. Appreciation of beauty. Getting swept away by music. An involuntary laugh at a really good punch line. When did these things happen and why? What was the moment when we, somehow, became human? What was the moment that it all changed?

Fast forward half a billion years from the primordial pond, and we are in the car, zooming down Highway 5. The 17-year old and I end up talking in ways that only car trips permit, eventually turning to the things that interest us most when we're together, especially language. He is interested in obscure and dying languages, and some of them have been my bread and butter as well. We note the success of Indo-European languages, which cover all of Europe except for mountainous holdouts, and which reach east through India and Pakistan. We speculate about the migrations that carried language from place to place and the sequestrations that allowed them to differentiate from each other. In Genesis, the disunion of language is the punishment and cure for hubris. Progress on that tower we were building in our godlike ambition ground to a halt when the architects, contractors, bricklayers and lunch crew could no longer understand each other's babble. And in that moment, everything changed.

But in the non-biblical world, language differentiation has hardly curbed human ambition. We mistrust and misunderstand people whose language - including their symbolic language, their religious language - is different. Inter-lingual, inter-ethnic, inter-religious hostility rages on with a continuing force that no optimistic, universalizing Esperanto can assuage.

Languages do migrate with nomads who speak them into new vistas, while looking for better hunting and fishing. But language is also imposed. And the most successful Indo-European language groups, like Romance and Germanic and Indo-Iranian, dominate not because of their poetic genius and clever turns of phrase, but as the imprint of conquest.

In the car, at 70 mph, we wondered about conquest at such a large scale that continents could become uniform, for short periods, in their possession of a common language. Those moments in history when someone near what would become London and someone near what would be Bucharest could have had some meaningful chit-chat in Latin, if only they'd had phones with which to do so. Or this moment, when our continent and much of the world are dominated by the language we speak, even though that will inevitably gave way in time. But in any event, we decided, the birth of global conquest was the moment everything changed, from a linguistic point of view.

But then, we thought, thinking backward, what was it that triggered such conquest? It couldn't have happened without sophisticated weapons, we reasoned. So what would that be? Iron age? Bronze age? The time when we first fashioned WMDs: swords, spears, daggers. This development seemed to us to be an outgrowth of the techniques used for making housewares and farming implements. So from those items to weapons required a moment of beating plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears, and that moment turned us from farmers, miners and smiths into generals and foot soldiers. Human history changed in that moment.

Looking back further, it seemed to us that we couldn't have had any mining of ore at all before we had people to spare to do the mining and learn the qualities of minerals and invent the forge and the tongs, the latter being an implement whose origin seemed so far fetched to our ancestors that Pirkei Avot, our earliest book of Talmud, speculated it was created by God, since how else could one forge tongs without having tongs with which to do so? In any event, we couldn't have had metallurgy without a human society in which some individuals could be spared from the task of gathering food. So that would be when? The neolithic revolution of maybe 12,000 years ago? In that revolutionary moment, many of our ancestors exchanged their nomadic life for a settled agricultural existence, as they learned that they could manipulate the environment around them. Not just find plants but grow them; create irrigation; domesticate animals for easy food. Invent pots so you could add soup to your kabob-and-berry menu. Settle into villages and then towns and then cities. In a city you could have a whole guild of people spending all their time thinking what to do next with a lump of copper.

This agricultural revolution - depicted in Daniel Quinn's mind-bending book Ishmael as being encoded in Torah through the story of Cain, the farmer, killing off Abel, the hunter - had not only the effect of enabling the growth of military power, but also providing a solid reason for it. Until there were human settlements in which resources (animal, mineral and vegetable!) could accumulate, there wasn't a reason for invasion. Why conquer people who have nothing to take? Agricultural life meant that a population could grow and, conversely, that in hard times, there would be more people suffering. So taking other people's stuff - homes, settlements, goods -  through conquest and tribute became insurance against the collapse of your kingdom, or at least of your kingdom's lifestyle.

So yes, that agricultural revolution in neolithic times. That was certainly the moment when everything changed. Humanity, civilization, the world; all became unrecognizable.

Sitting over 8:30 am pea soup ("breakfast of champions," cheered the waitress) at Pea Soup Andersen's in Santa Nella, I wondered how it came to this. From the bright idea of planting a seed or taming a wild sheep for its milk or digging for shiny rocks in the ground to a mock-Danish tourist stop with a fake windmill, serving travelers careening in cars from one end of a water-drained state to another. And how this came to pass in really a relatively short period of time - in the last 12,000 out of sorta-kinda 200,000 years of anatomically recognizable humans, and the merest blink of an eye since we were all swimming in the pond. What was the pivotal moment that sent us down this track? This long arrow of highway, this path of human history from which there are no easy, safe, peaceful, universally agreeable exit ramps.

It's easy to foresee doom ahead, and in this era of continued invention, we look for the thing that will save us. It will be technology. It will be renewable energy. It will be water desalinization. It will be the reintroduction of extinct species of animals. It will be something like we've had in the past, but bigger, or shinier, or cleverer. And that will be the moment, we let ourselves imagine, that everything will change.

Poet and environmental activist Larry Robinson gave me some hope the other day when I wasn't looking for it. We sit on a board of directors together for an organization committed to social change and paradigm shift, and we were doing a visioning exercise that involved speaking in a voice other than our own, whatever voice happened to come to us. Larry turned to the group and said something like, "People didn't always see the ripple effects of what you were doing." We asked who was speaking. He replied, "I am your grandchild. I'm speaking to you from the future." We all gasped; this was unexpected. And then he continued. "The efforts that you made in that time - and I won't tell you if they were successful in the short-run or not - were nonetheless important in and of themselves. They modeled how to negotiate a world that is in flux and transition."

And then there was light. The mood in the room changed - ten adults suddenly filled with hope and gratitude. Ten adults suddenly seeing, or re-seeing, that they are part of a flow of change, a flow to which everyone, every thinking, caring, intentional person, can contribute. Even if the solution is not instantaneous, the solving is ongoing.

We love the misleading clarity of milestones, we humans. How many books have been written about 10 (or 11 or 101) inventions that changed the world? But as appealing as it is to point to moments and to see them as discrete, identifiable points of change, aberrations against a backdrop of stability, things aren't that way. Every moment is the moment in which everything changed. This moment right now is. And this moment. And this. And this one too.

The tasks ahead are daunting. Hayom katzar v'ham'lachah m'rubah, says Pirkei Avot. The day is short, and the work is formidable. But don't panic, says the text. Lo aleycha ham'lachah ligmor. It is not your duty to see the work to completion. Still, lo atah ben chorin l'hibatel mimenah, the fact that the job is overwhelming does not mean you can opt out. You are not free to opt out, says the text. Which might be a comment about responsibility: you must step up to the plate. Or it might be a comment about inevitability: you are part of change, you are the change, whether you desire it or not.

And while this doesn't make the problems of our planet any simpler to solve, it at least makes breathing a little easier for me, because I'm breathing in some hope. We are not responsible for achieving the outcome, just setting the trajectory. I am reminded of once hearing Rabbi Marcia Prager translating the word torah as meaning "trajectory," from the Hebrew root yarah, to shoot. So this is our Torah, to keep setting and re-setting the trajectory in the time that is given us. We have no choice but to do so. And I, for one, am more reassured than I am anxious when I think, with each act that I carry out, with each choice that I make, with each turn on the highway, that this is the moment that everything changed.

Martin Luther, a notable changemaker, spoke about the ongoing process of change that is the nature of this existence. I am grateful to Rachel Naomi Remen for introducing me to this wonderful passage:
This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness;
not health but healing,
not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.
We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it;
the process is not yet finished, but it is going on.
This is not the end, but it is the road;
all does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified."
(Defense and Explanation of All the Articles, 1521)
Satisfied, we paid for our soup and pocketed the change. Still in the promising light of morning, we climbed into the car and pulled out onto the road, taking the southbound entrance into the future.

1 comment:

Lilith said...

Thanks so much for this enlightening post, Irwin. I really appreciate it.