We had some of that golden evening light tonight just after house meeting. The kind that makes you think maybe an apocalypse is just over the horizon. That the mountains are on fire. That the gods are angry. This Saturday I went for a long bike ride up to the Peak to Peak highway with Amy from Picklebric. At the Sunshine Saddle she pointed out the cheat grass — an invasive species that she works on. Studying disturbed ecosystems, and how to assemble new approximations of the originals from the parts at hand. You can’t get rid of the invasives, but maybe you can influence which ones thrive. Just beyond the divide above us, the mountains covered with red trees, a forest being transformed in a lifetime. 500 years from now will they be the Aspen mountains? Tim applied for a job at the Nature Conservancy as a landscape ecologist in a similar vein — understanding and managing wild and semi-wild lands for their own sake. Like the Colorado river pulse. All this made me think of the ecopoesis that Kim Stanley Robinson portrayed in his Mars books, especially Green Mars. Humans as gardeners of the no longer quite wild. From here on out, it’s all gardening. Mandatory gardening. It’s just what kind of garden do we want? What will grow in this climate?
Have you seen the light?
As animals, and especially visual animals at that, we have a particular experience of the light. For us it is illumination, information about our surroundings. For that purpose moonlight or even starlight will do. And for tens of millions of years, that’s all we ever saw. Somehow a few of us made it through the Permian extinction, and into the Triassic, but the ascendancy of the dinosaurs eventually forced us into the darkness of the night. Our world became dim, and our eyes went colorblind. Most mammals today see only two colors, but a few of us have re-evolved a third photoreceptor. Three colors is still inferior to the four or five or six seen by many near-surface fish, birds, reptiles, insects, and other arthropods. The stomatopods are almost biological spectroscopic imaging systems, with 12 color channels in each of their independently movable trinocular eyes. We are lesser than the eyes that never left the light. They stole the colors from us and made us hide within the night. They kept the sun for themselves, not knowing that our small and furtive ways, our burning endothermy and our fur would see us through the aftermath of the KT impact.
Khadak was one of those movies that I got solely because Netflix told me to. The blurb provided was almost entirely cryptic:
Set in contemporary Mongolia, this imaginative fable follows 17-year-old Bagi, a nomadic shepherd who possesses untapped transcendental powers. After the military forces Bagi and his family to abandon their way of life and resettle in a mining town, he crosses paths with a beautiful coal thief who helps him find his destiny.
No trailer, virtually no reviews online. I went for it anyway. Mongolia is a wild place, I like wild places, and I like insights into foreign lands via film. It’s certainly weird, but it was absolutely worth 2 hours.
The Keeping of the Light
Several years ago, Yuk Yung noted, either in seminar or at one of his lunch talks, that overall, as a system, the Earth, including its biosphere, actually does not consume energy. This isn’t so surprising if you think of it like a lifeless rock – of course a spinning asteroid being shone upon somewhere between Jupiter and Mars isn’t consuming energy, it’s just absorbing and re-radiating, by σT4. It re-radiates at a lower temperature than the sun, and it re-radiates isotropically; the quality of the energy changes, its entropy increases, but the amount of energy coming out, of course, is the same as that which is coming in, barring any interesting chemistry that might take place as a result of the incident radiation.
For some reason, the same statement, applied to the Earth, seems stranger. We think of life as consuming energy somehow, but really it doesn’t. At most, the Earth system acts as a temporary energy buffer, as our indigenous biology catalyzes the formation of chemical bonds, using mostly sunlight as a power source. But by now, overall, the Earth is in almost perfect energetic equilibrium. The light comes in at nearly 6000 °K, and it comes in nearly parallel. It leaves at a few hundred degrees Kelvin, and in all directions. All that’s changed is the entropy, unless there’s a net creation (or destruction) of ions or chemical bonds, or a change in temperature, on the way through. Somehow, life extracts order from this flow of energy. “We eat negative entropy.”, Yuk said. We consume information, transmuting the physical order of the star’s light into the chemical order of life. We grasp at it as it passes through, and in that grasping, live.
The material with which we encode this order, with which we briefly hold the light, is itself also the product of stars. I’ve known this since I watched Cosmos as a kid. We are the “stuff” of stars, but somehow the fact that our order is also somehow tied up in the order of stars, quite literally, seems odder. We’re some kind of entropically driven reaction.
It seems to me that this physical reality is ripe for mythologizing.
The stars are great unknowing givers. They are radiant, and generous, and terrible. They can receive nothing in return for their gifts, incinerating their lovers. They say to us, without knowing, “Take this light and hold it. Use it as it passes through you, to know, and to perhaps preserve, against the chaos, and cold dark emptiness of space.” And so we are become the receivers of the light, composed of the cold cinders of the stars. We keep the light that only they can make, but which they cannot hold. I think it’s a difficult and sacred thing to do, to just keep holding on.