Friday, July 27, 2012

Evotour, part eight. Feeling Small

Most people want to go to places that make them feel big, places where they can experience the thrill of using technological enhancements of their power (e.g. motorboats or ORVs) or the feeding of their self-esteem (meditative retreats). But whenever I am in California in the summer, I make a pilgrimage to a place that makes me feel small: Sequoia National Park.

On June 12, I hiked part of the High Sierra Trail. Just eleven miles of it. What I mainly wanted to see was the High Sierra mountains, the easternmost range of the complex of mountains known as the Sierra Nevada. The tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney, is easily visible from this trail. I hiked at about 7,500 feet elevation, watching the 14,000 foot Mt. Whitney flanked by peaks almost as tall. It was not just the Sierras that made me feel small. It was the thought of the massive mountain-building that created them in the last few dozen million years. The earth, utterly still most of the time, can shudder into life and raise mountains, a few inches or feet at a time. Not only I but my life span seemed insignificant. When I reached Mehrten Creek, I took off my boots and soaked my feet in bubbling cool water in a little pool that overlooked Mineral King, the high mountains to the south. It was like the best resort one could imagine, but I enjoyed it all the more for having undertaken a difficult hike to get to it.

On June 13, resting up from the hike, I wandered around the giant sequoias of Crescent Meadow and the vicinity of the General Sherman tree. Giant sequoia trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) begin their lives as little seedlings after a fire, and they grow somewhat rapidly. After just a few hundred years, they have reached their full height, about 350 feet, seven times as tall as the tallest trees in the part of Oklahoma where I live. Then they spend the next 1,500 years filling out their trunks. The largest sequoias, such as General Sherman (a tree named after a Civil War general famous for cutting down lots of trees), have trunks that are almost as thick three hundred feet above the ground as they are at ground level. The Sherman tree has 52,000 cubic feet of timber inside its trunk. These trees can also make a reflective soul feel very small and very young. This fact was lost on most of the visitors, such as the loud-mouthed biker who complained loudly about having to walk a half mile to see the tree, and then hardly looked at it, instead being interested only in having his photograph taken kissing his bikeress at the base of the tree. To him, everything around him was just backdrop to his own life. I had come for a different purpose.

I wanted to feel awe, but was usually distracted by mild pain or random thoughts. I forced myself to be contemplative. Wisdom came to me from my subconscious mind once I had permitted it. Goodness and altruism are like sequoia trees. When an opportunity for goodness becomes available, we have to germinate the altruism and grow it as fast as possible before evil fills the space. But having done so, the goodness needs to persist and grow for as close to forever as we can make it. I realize this is not a scientific insight, but a scientist is only one of the things I am.

Jesus, who was a quiet observer of nature (unlike many of his modern followers), said (according to oral tradition), “Consider the lilies of the field, that grow today but tomorrow wither away in the heat. Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” The Middle East, like California, has lots of spring wildflowers, which dry up and shed their seeds in summer. Even a single one of these flowers is more beautiful than anything that human industry can produce—as true today as in Jesus’ day. Even one. All around Sequoia Park, especially on granite outcrops, there were hundreds of thousands of Linanthus montanus plants, a type of phlox that is very small but produces perhaps the most beautiful flower in the world. There were more of them, and were more beautiful, than any human or any pollinator could appreciate. This experience humbled me as much as did the mountains and the trees.

People wanted to know if I had a good time in Sequoia Park. How do you answer a question like that? I didn’t go there to have a good time. I went as a pilgrimage to experience the vastness and the beauty of nature.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Evotour, part seven. The Evolution of Christian Science

On June 9, I had the privilege of participating in a Victorian garden party in Pasadena, dressed as Charles Darwin. It was a fundraiser for Opera a la Carte, the opera company with which my college friend Carol has been working for many years.

Carol has other jobs as well. One of them is to be a singer for a Christian Science church in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, a job she has had for years even though she is not a member of that religious persuasion. I can never get enough of hearing Carol’s beautiful voice, even if it means sitting through a Christian Science service. But, the ever alert naturalist, I listened to and analyzed what the Christian Scientists were saying.

Christian Science began with the visions—most of us say delusions, her followers would say revelations—of Mary Baker Eddy in nineteenth century America. By chance, I also happened to be reading a book about the history and current controversies of the Mormon church, which began about the same time. The United States was a frontier country. America had been founded by breaking with European tradition of loyalty to monarchs and to state-supported churches. Many new religions, led by self-styled prophets, began at this time. They appealed to direct experience, and to divine revelation (indistinguishable from delusion by our mere human brains). They were like weeds growing in a field after a fire. Most of them, like most of the plants of the field, died out. But the legacies of Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy live on. Mormonism has become a major political force, devoted as unswervingly to the political right as it is to God, while Christian Science has not fulfilled Mark Twain’s fear that it would become the religion that conquered American thought and action.

Today, Christian Science is known mainly for its opposition to conventional medical practice. Church services consist mainly of singing and of readings (without sermon comment) from the Bible and from the Mary Baker Eddy scriptures. On a previous visit to this church in 2006, the Eddy reading was something like (in my imperfect memory), “Do you have a carbuncle? Well, you don’t really have a carbuncle. The carbuncle is just an illusion.” Most of us think, how could these people be so delusional? But consider this. At the time that Mary Baker Eddy started Christian Science, conventional medical science was a bunch of snake-oil hokum. Eddy wrote against the scientific idea of a life force—an idea that has been long abandoned. Strange as it may seem, Eddy was appealing to reason and experience. Since its inception, Christian Science has ossified into a belief system that is impervious to new discoveries, and today is a carbuncle afloat on a sea of scientific evidence but which absorbs none of it. The Mormon Church has at least incorporated a little bit of new evidence—it now rejects polygamy and admits black men into its priesthood of believers. But it, too, has largely become an impervious bubble of ignorance. There is simply no archaeological evidence of the great battle between the fair children of God and the swarthy Native American children of evil which even mainstream Mormons continue to commemorate at their Hill Cumorah site.

Still, I left with a little more respect for Christian Science. At its inception, it was perhaps a viable alternative view, even testable by scientific hypotheses. Mary Baker Eddy was even open to the insights of Charles Darwin. But that was a long time ago.

In the photo, Mary Baker Eddy watches over the place where Christian scientists educate their children.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Evotour, Part Six. Fire and Renewal in the California Mountains

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in California used to have meadows surrounded by pines and black oaks. The pines and oaks extended partway up Stonewall Peak. But in 2003, a fire burned the entire area except some places around the meadow. Today, that meadow is the only place you can find pines and black oaks.

However, the chaparral shrubs have grown back profusely. I am accustomed to dry chaparral that consists mostly of dead sticks, but this chaparral was filled with fresh green stems, flowers, and fruits. Along with the profuse regrowth of manzanita, ceanothus, scrub oaks, and holly-leaved cherry, there were perennial wildflowers in full bloom: penstemon and yerba santa. The shrubs had grown over three meters tall and state park personnel, the few that remain after budget cuts, have to keep trimming them away from the trail. A few of the black oaks have resprouted, and a few pine seedlings have been replanted.

This is a theme I have presented before, but I enjoy being reminded of it when I see it again in the natural world. Ecological disturbances, such as fires, are disasters for the organisms killed by them, but act as a source of renewal for the ecosystem as a whole. Dead grass and wood are transformed into fertilizer that feeds the vigorous growth of new plants, either resprouts or seedlings. The chaparral in Cuyamaca, and the tallgrass prairie of the Midwest, depend on a fire cycle.

I do not doubt that my hike at Cuyamaca would have been prettier if the pines and black oaks had been intact, but I would not have seen the way organisms capitalize on natural disturbances as an opportunity for renewal.