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Unnaturalist: In the Beginning

Like so many kids I was hooked on dinosaurs. My parents gave me an illustrated encyclopedia and I spent hours pouring over the details of exotically named creatures like utahraptor, diplodocus, and allosaurus. That dinosaurs actually existed opened a door to my imagination and seeded in my young mind the belief that the natural world was capable of creating almost anything. I would stare at the illustrations and transport myself in time. I wanted to smell the strange fragrance of that world, the air humming with unknown insects, the primal calls echoing through a Seussian forest, the shaking earth, giant mountains of muscle crashing through the canopy and gobbling up the smaller ones. Terrible, brutal, beautiful, mysterious. I was wandering in the mist, driven by the prospect of discovery. In time I learned that dinosaurs were just one chapter in a story that reached back to the birth of life and branched outward over the eons, evolving into a mind boggling array of shapes and forms, wiggling its way into every conceivable ecological niche, scratching out a living from the dirt with tooth and claw and blood.

And now we’re here. People. Where do we fit into this story? Do we get to write our chapter? Are we the masters of our destiny or simply behaving according to the laws of our nature, responding to stimulus with predictability and yet bewitched by a delusion of freewill? Gods or fools? Probably, we are some combination of the two.

If an alien naturalist comes to our world in a million years and excavates the debris of our civilization what would they make of it? If they are anything like us I imagine them kneeling in the soil, sifting through the endless cans and bottles like broken sea shells on the beach, searching for the Rosetta Stone that explains our world. They would sort and classify everything: Coke in this pile, Pepsi there, iPhone here, Galaxy there. Maybe they would even find our trash beautiful, collect it back home, and display it where they live as conversation pieces, exchanging canned remarks about how we could not tame our darker instincts. 

I wonder how they would explain commerce, the great human enterprise we’re all conscripted into from birth. It started innocently enough. We just wanted to survive, foraging and hunting, huddling together in primitive shelters, victim to the capricious elements, dimly discerning the path forward. We were our own guinea pigs sacrificing ourselves at the alter of trial and error. But we did progress and slowly tamed our environment, brought stability to the land and our lives, planted crops, and invented tools to make our lives easier. This allowed us to trade, to get the things we couldn’t harvest, extract, or make ourselves in exchange for the things we could. We diverted rivers, leveled mountains, felled forests, cultivated civilization, built cities that towered into the sky, and imposed a tenuous order that made us feel comfortable and safe. We marked imaginary lines across the earth like surgeons and carved it up until everything was owned. We worshipped wealth. Market forces pumped ideas, goods, and services through the latticework of globalization. We cracked the code of life, shuffled DNA, and patented that. The Anthropocene became a grotesque miracle, a crucible of the old and the new, a time of horrifying revelations. We woke up everyday and read impossible headlines, consuming the tragedy of our story as entertainment, a way to pass the time. To compensate for the looming sense of dread we double-downed on our belief in our own cleverness. We will find a way, we said, we always have.

It seems to me that humans are bestowed with a gift that is unique in all the animal kingdom. We can see deep into the past and project ourselves far into the future. The curse of this gift is that we might be haunted by the things we cannot change and helpless to stop the momentum of a fate we are rocketing towards. What that fate is exactly is anyone’s guess but we cannot help but outline the shape of things to come.