Occasionally small miracles happen that helps remind me of the trivialness of human existence and worries. We’ve built these cities made of concrete and steel that give us the impression of permanence and a place in the world, but sometimes something will occur that lets us know how impermanent we are.
This is especially true in North America where none of the major cities have been around long enough to match the age of most European city’s sewer systems. When you start taking into consideration the civilizations of the Middle East, India, China, and the Sub Sahara that flourished while Europeans were still squatting in the bushes, you really begin to realize how young this continent is.
Even the oldest city on the banks of the Euphrates pales in contrast to the history of the world itself. Various creation myths would have us believe the world was created for our pleasure, but only those whose brains are oxygen deprived from sniffing the glue that holds their holy books together are actually going to believe that anymore.
Human existence is but a mere blink of the eye in relationship to how long life has existed on the planet. We haven’t come close to matching the longevity of the dinosaurs yet. Human history is only considered in terms of ten of thousands of years while, judging by fossil records, the big lizards could have been around for tens of millions years before they died out.
None of this prevents us from thinking highly of ourselves though, and to give credit where credit is due, we’ve certainly accomplished a lot in a short period of time. We’ve driven thousands of life forms to the edge of extinction, if not to extinction, without being aware of their existence in a lot of cases.
In only the relatively short period of time that we’ve existed, we’ve managed to destroy or deplete the majority of fresh water in the world, turn fertile land into desert, rid the world of pesky forests that stood long before humans existed (thus making the world safe from the icky pollution of fallen leaves), and made it easier for everyone to get a tan by eliminating the pesky Ozone layer.
There have been major advances in other areas, too. We’ve been able to find cures for some of the diseases our behaviours have caused. We’ve perfected ways in which we can exterminate huge amounts of us at once, and we’ve created belief systems that guarantee we will want to use the means to do so. What do you think will happen when everyone believes a variation of “I’m right and you’re wrong”? Peace and tranquility?
If that weren’t bad enough, there is a good chunk of the human race that feels they are doing the rest of it a favour by imposing their way of thinking on them. You can’t really be happy unless you think just like me, so I’ll do you the favour of either forcing you to or putting you out of your misery.
The worst is getting wrapped up in the events of the world to the point where they become all that matters – when you lose track of the things beyond our own limited perspective and imagine it to be important in the scheme of things.
Yesterday I experienced something that took me beyond the concrete and metal and the noise and bustle, and out of my own head. I was downtown with my wife when we ran into a couple we don’t see all that often. I happened to look beyond the buildings and noticed a couple of large birds almost directly overhead.
I recognised them almost immediately as turkey vultures by the way they were able to soar effortlessly on what seemed like only minute traces of wind. As I was turning my head to tell my wife and our friends about them, I noticed out of the corner of my eye about six more of the huge birds flying behind them.
It was hard to tell how many of them there were because at any given moment one would soar out of sight behind a building and another would turn in a large lazy circle. They looked to be riding in invisible elevators, but ones that allowed for sudden veering at forty-five degree angles or stalls that allowed for moments of suspension in midair. One was almost tempted to look for the strings that were holding them up.
The four of us stood on the sidewalk staring up in amazement as we watched the birds parade by. People hurrying by didn’t bother to look up and see what it was we were staring at. All that mattered was that we weren’t in their way. The turkey vultures eventually drifted off and we resumed our conversation, but I kept my eye turned toward the sky to see if any of them would come back.
At first all I saw was some indistinct movement in the sky. As it came into focus I realized it was another flight of birds. This time there had to be about twenty of them stretched across the sky, swooping and swirling. Following a path they had followed long before the city below them had existed, they traveled where thousands of their ancestors had plied the sky for their trip northward in the spring.
Again the four of us stood in slack jawed wonder. If we had thought watching the previous group had been impressive, to watch a flock of twenty turkey vultures was almost beyond description. There wasn’t any of the military precision of the massive flocks of geese that had been overhead for the last few weeks where each animal had a specific place in a formation.
Still, there was something about this loose grouping of twenty birds that was every bit as stirring as the sight of hundreds of geese stretched out across the sky. Maybe it was because none of us had ever experienced seeing that many large birds of prey in the sky together before. The most you might see is a family group of four or five near the end of the summer when the youngsters are being trained for the flight to the wintering grounds in the South.
Perhaps it is the total indifference to us down on the ground that helps make these moments so spectacular. As long as they are alive it won’t matter what we do or how we behave – they will continue to fly that route as they have for probably longer than humans have been in North America.
They were flying south to north and north to south with the changing of the seasons long before there were men living on this land mass. Some consider birds only a few jumps along the evolutionary ladder from dinosaurs, and if you’ve ever seen a turkey vulture up close with their naked face and plucked necks, it’s a hard argument to refute. If that’s the case, who knows how many centuries, if not millennium, they have been taking this route.
These minor miracles always remind me of how insignificant humans really are when it comes to the planet. We are but a brief wink of the eye in terms of life. When you start to consider just our own solar system, we become even more trivial. In context of the universe itself, we don’t even register. I think the more often we are reminded of this point, the better it is for us.
If there were any species on the face of the planet right now that needed a lesson in humility, it would be humans. I’m very much afraid it will take us coming close to destroying ourselves before we learn that lesson.