As the mid-size commercial airliner lifted me through canyons and cathedrals of billowing clouds, my face was nearly pressed to my small window to the sky. A moment ago rain was streaking across the glass, and we were accelerating down the runway beneath a low, gray monsoonal sky. Now we were above the rain, eye level with layer upon layer of rising cumulous in shades of blue grays where they stood like columns supporting a ceiling of even more clouds, above which shone the evening sun. Shreds of long, thin cirrus clouds raced by in the foreground. The beauty of it nearly took my breath away.
As we continued to rise up into the clear, smooth air above the cloud level it occurred to me that just moments earlier I had been reading a book about how the discovery of cooking had played the major role in our evolution from apes to humans. Now I was flying at an incredible speed in a product of very recent human technology witnessing sights that a tiny majority of life on earth would ever see.
Around me were a cabin full of fellow primates who seemed mostly anxious for permission to turn their phones back on.
I’m not going to be a prig and insist that everyone around me should have been equally rapt with the scene unfolding outside our cozy aluminum cabin. No. We each take our moments of wonder and awe when (and as) we find them. That is the wonder of natural beauty: it is there to be enjoyed by anyone that takes the time to look, and no matter how many people look at it, it is neither diminished nor depleted. Beauty, when it appears, is an unlimited resource for the time it is on display.
Of course our aesthetic sense is something that has evolved right along with our upright gait and ability to talk, and it is a universal trait of us hominids. The religiously inclined would likely suggest that such a “natural” view of one of our “higher senses” is a slap against god, and a reduction of humans to nothing more than clever animals. What crap.
Animals we most definitely are. But the suggestion that this statement of fact is some sort of diminishment of our status makes less and less sense to me. Perhaps its because I’ve moved so far from the point of accepting the fact that there is nothing that happens on this planet that is not completely natural in origin that I am now free to more truly appreciate the wonder of who and what we are. For I would suggest that until one accepts the reality of our actual origins and place in the world, one is not qualified to pass judgement on the “evolutionary” view of life, or to portray it as an insult to god’s image.
There is so much real wonder out there to contemplate that I now consider any religious or spiritual explanation of things to be the true diminishment of our species. They represent the stories of our childhood as a species. When considered in that light, our first stories are useful in understanding our development as humans, but when applied as actual, grown-up explanations or as guides for adult behavior, they are woefully inadequate and — I would argue — detrimental to our continued progress.
In my own life I feel as if I’ve just reached a point where I have cleared away enough of the cobwebs and inherited stories to begin my discovery of what life really has to offer. It only took me 51 years (an age which I would never have reached in earlier times). And thanks (it would seem) to cooking (more on this next week), I was born in a time where I could spend as little time eating as possible, yet take in enough calories to have the energy, the lifespan, and the time to learn as much as I have learned.
That, in itself, is a source of awe and wonder.
I feel, also, a certain urgency to see just how far I can go with this journey of discovery in my one lifetime.
Around us are thousands of people that seem to live more like animals than we would like to admit, moving with the herd. At times each of us must move with the pack as well. But in-between those passages, we have the time, energy and opportunity to look around us, to look at ourselves and explore our lives, our bodies, our world. It is an evolutionary gift that has been given to no other species as richly as to us. And it is there to enjoy, just like those billowing clouds I flew through. Just like the sunset.
Life’s riches are there for anyone who takes the time to stop and take them in.