Student: Oh, teacher, who will show us the way? Teacher: you are already on the “way”; what you learn from it depends on how well you listen. Student: Oh, great teacher, how can we know when we are the one who is chosen to hear correctly? Teacher: Little one, it tells all of us the same thing. Have you not heard?
The time of early morning in Arizona is a peak social and workaday period in the avian world of birds. This doesn’t mean that Bears aren’t busy and active observers as well, for their day begins whenever there is any action.
C.Bear is not an Audubon scholar, and neither are we. We have more birds in our Arizona back yard than some coastal counties that we could name. We enjoy your avian tweeters, chirpers, peepers, your complainers, your operatic types, and all your self-advertising busybodies staking out a claim on their particular branch or potential nesting site.
We have no proper bird book, but we recognize almost all the birds by their sound. C.Bear’s favorite makes a sound like a slider whistle, “whee-OOO”, popularized by human musical luminaries like Brian Wilson (“Heroes and Villains”), in turn an improvisation borrowed from Spike Jones and even the old black and white silent movies of the Keystone Cops and “Perils of Pauline” genre.
It is almost nesting time, and C.Bear likes to watch his birdie pals inspecting holes in Mr. Cactipus for future family nests. One bird will alight on the Saguaro and poke his head into a hole, only to be pushed aside by the next in line, who in turn is told to “move on” by yet another impatient house hunter. When all have inspected the hole, they all fly off chattering about their great discoveries. it’s time to find a mate before somebody else buys this prime real estate!
We heard the thrum of Mr. Hummingbird making his circuit to check out which bushes are in bloom. It is not even spring yet, but the yard is a riot of yellow blooms and blossoms at just this time of year.
And Mr. Sun shined happily on this magical circus, warming all clowns and grouches alike. You would think he has been around forever.
The rains have been good to us this year. The poppies and little clumpy tufts of grass luxuriate in the lava rock landscaping. The pool filter pump cycles “on”, and Hayward the pool cleaner begins his automated ritual of scouring the pool bottom and sides, a plastic-finned Plecostomus fish in his oversized tank, scavenging like the good bottom-feeder that he is.
The world comes alive in the mornings. That is the way it has always been. It has almost always been that way, that is.
In the beginning, or very nearly so, the universe began seeing its first formations of cold molecular hydrogen clouds. Huge unseeing monsters the size of a galaxy, these cold clouds circled around local dense spots in a glacially slow gravitational dance, ethereal whirlpools drifting gradually inward to form centers of warmer, denser gas.
And there were no dust clouds, for there was no dust.
Eons passed, and the local pockets of hydrogen warmed in falling down into their gravity wells, becoming compressed even further. At some point in time, there were born great burps of thermonuclear fusion, and the first stars flickered into being. Monster blue-white stellar maelstroms lit the universe for the first time in all time, bathing proto-galaxies in unfathomably intense radiation that blasted away much of the gases to the hinterlands of the universe as it was then. Thermonuclear fires fused hydrogen into helium at unsustainable rates. When the hydrogen was gone, way too soon, the monsters began to cool and contract. Like an athlete on drugs, there is always something else to burn, for a while, and helium fuses into higher elements, and those into higher elements still, until a massive core of iron means this is the stellar end of the line: burnout, collapse, and explosion.
Exploding stars come in many flavors and circumstances. Humans call them “supernovae”. The typical gravitational collapse of the spent stellar furnace triggers catastrophic explosions, echoing throughout the universe forever. The Crab Nebula is one such star remnant; it exploded in 1054AD, a famous event witnessed by Chinese astronomers. It is thought that Navajo and Anasazi artwork also chronicles this strange, burning daytime flare on the stones of the mesas and canyons right around here, in Arizona and New Mexico.
And the miracle of unimaginable destruction brings the miracle of unimaginable birth. As each generation of star breeds higher and higher inventories of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, aluminum, silicon and other lighter elements, these in turn are expelled into clouds or shells surrounding the last cycle of dying, collapsing giants. The final detonation bathes this shell of elements in radiation levels that make a breeder reactor seem like a feeble 40 watt refrigerator light bulb. Iron is the end of the line for the thermonuclear fusion process, but supernova radiation transmutes shell clouds of these lower elements into titanium, uranium, lead and even the alchemist’s gold.
The greater part of this richness is blasted out into the void, to some day whirl and gel into the cosmic engines that create complexity and order out of simple stuff and random motion.
Sometimes, whirlpools of this rich mixture rotate in a majestic dance around new stars that begin to coalesce out of such catastrophic processes. Early stars could only host gaseous planets, if any, but Sol-like stars could revolve in lockstep with great “protoplanetary disks” of real stuff. The solar centrifuge sorts out silicates to make rocks, metals to enrich the world we live in, and heavy gases like oxygen.
It’s within just this narrow band, the “habitable zone” of the merry-go-round disk, that our own Earth was first formed. Our zone grabbed the Brass Ring. That’s how Earth happened to have all the stuff needed for life as we know it.
The Universe is the original and arguably only “reality show” in town.
That’s what A.Bear says, anyway. Teacher bears have to learn this to add to our understanding of the world we live in. They tend to wax enthusiastic to all who will listen, in the hope that just this understanding will enrich all of us in our appreciation of the common and ordinary that is so uncommon and extraordinary after all.
C.Bear’s attention span starts to drift when lessons turn to thermonuclear fusion and transmutation of lead into gold. After all, that’s the way Bears are made.
C.Bear knew that when we stare up into the belt of great Orion the Hunter on a starry night, something like this is happening there right now. C.Bear knew what’s in it for us: most of our universe is just soup stock, but our own little corner of it is a rich stew of just what we need to be people and bears: vitamins, nutrients, warmth, light, water, power, trees to build forests, and forests to build homes.
The blue sky gives us air to breath, and winds to propel the rains, and light to see the beauty.
The earthen land masses give us mountains, forests, deserts and green life, and these are all part of the billion year cycles of earth, air, fire and water.
The roar of distant oceans gives us a food supply, a climate cycle and an inexhaustible supply of water, the building block of life. Life gives us the green trees, the yellow poppies, the birds singing their songs, food to sustain us, and cotton to clothe humans and (above all) to fabricate the fur and stuffing for more Bears.
The night sky gives us coolness, weather, rest and respite, and an incredible vista (on a night such as tonight) of the wonder of it all. The night is a habitat for owls and astronomers, curious Bears, and crickets. Especially, night belongs to the crickets.
And that is how, at time = 14.7 billion years, we happened to be sitting out on the back porch listening to Mr. Cricket chirping out to his pals in other cricket-friendly niches of the back yard night universe.
Nighttime brings us a time of silence and quiet. C.Bear could hear everything to be heard. While Mr. Cricket chirped his call, we could hear another cricket, from his easterly cricket domain, scratching out his creaky replies. We could hear condensation from the gutter dripping into the grass below. We could hear the wind whispering through the palms and pines. Far off, a distant thunder: not an electrical storm this evening, but the muted roar of a jet gaining altitude for a journey to places to which a man could not walk in a year.
And is that not enough?
We know that we are part of the cycle too, and eventually we meet up with our concerns and issues of advancing human age, and frailty, and the things that we worry about over coffee and in the doctors offices and lounges. But it is a trade-off: when we look out at Orion high in the night sky, or relax and listen to Mr. Cricket, we know (for Bears are good teachers) we are not just seeing and hearing a living, breathing process out there.
Yes, it is enough to watch and listen. Sometimes, such as on nights like these, it is too much to try to extrapolate from all that, to connect the dots and realize that the night sounds and sky represent the sum totality of all that has come before. Not just for them, but for us.
All of that has already been done. We are already a part of it. In turn, what has come before is irrevocably a part of us forever. If there is a Way, that is the way. No one’s life is the only possible path. We are the path that we follow; the way will materialize of itself.
What is the Way? There is no other, but the universe you are in now. That is why it is enough. Tonight is everything.
Our own teacher bear A.Bear knows a thing about history. As a Bear, he naturally also understands the importance of mentors, friends and accomplishment to the quality of life, and how that is a part of the scheme of things. A.Bear noted that history shows us how we confuse ends and means again and again:
“Though I have not earned an honest day’s wages in my life, I have seen all of the gold in their vaults. You celebrated artisans, you who create things of great beauty, value and utility with your bare hands, have never seen the gold. Cede unto me your loyalty, for the right of command has been bestowed to me.” And all but the wisest artisans bowed, for they had met their master.
“That’s a pretty neat parable,” C.Bear observed. “Who said that?”
“I said that,” said A.Bear, and the lesson was finished.
There is no point in trying to expropriate a Way, for the exclusive use of yourself, or for your group; the realities of the universe do not need spokespeople, and cannot long be dispensed as party favors in deadly human “us against them” disorders. Nature is impatient with imbalance, and often harshly so. Sooner or later, the Way, to the extent it can be said there is a “way”, will push aside unjust social artifices like mud castles in the spring flood.
This evening it rained, and after the rain came the sunset. We saw a uniform backdrop of gray. To the northeast, between bands of gray, one mushroom head of a giant cumulonimbus glowed in a radiant golden red light.
To the southwest, a range of cirrostratus stretched lazily across the sky in parallel bands, like an inverted ocean surf roaring in to the beach. It too captured the sun’s last red rays. Like the neon tetra in the aquarium, turned to a certain angle, it glowed momentarily a bright iridescent red.
Then these ephemeral displays were gone, indistinguishable from all the other high clouds below or above. But they were gifts. Lenin and Stalin did not give them to us, nor did Mother Theresa, nor Abraham Lincoln. These gifts were ours all along. Knowing when and how to look is everything, and acquiring this kind of experience is forever.
Listen and observe as if life depended on it, for it does. Nature is telling us all the same thing.
The lessons of life do not have to be harsh, high-maintenance ordeals. The way we see it, sometimes the best thing is to sit out on the back porch and re-open our minds to the greater world and universe around us.
C.Bear could tell you that.
He’ll tell you that we visited his pal Phoenix Bear and friends in Phoenix, and we did the yard work, and watched some movies, and we spent some time with old friends in the area. And he sat around and supervised, as only a Bear can do so well. But mostly, we all sat around on days and nights like these, and watched. On this vacation at least as much so as any other, we watched and listened to a wonderful world that comes alive anew each morning.
C.Bear does know this time together is given to us by the same forces that the Anasazi saw and recorded, from every day to the next. There is incalculable comfort in vacations like these, when this day together is the greatest gift of all.
As has been chronicled before, C.Bear is very good at watching and looking out. He rarely misses a thing, though he comes across as so “laid back” that it would be hard to tell sometimes what he is thinking. But we listen, and we know.
“This is my kind of world”, he said.
That’s the way C.Bear saw it. That’s his universe. And that’s the way we see it too.
© Alex Forbes, February 18, 2005
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