By Christopher Cudworth
As motorists, we tend to think of potholes as really bad things. They threaten our tires. Jolt our suspensions. Kick off hubcaps and throw water up on our windshields.
But actually, potholes are a keen reflection of the natural order of things.
Glacier National Park
One of my favorite places on earth is Glacier National Park. The topography of the park is formed by massive geological forces. First the mountains were pushed up by tectonic forces producing an overthrust that pushed the rocks up and over the landscape below.
Proof of that passage is found in the fossilized algal formations at the top of the mountains. These in many cases remain untouched by the persistent snows and melts that affect the region.
The glaciers that gave the park it’s name were once so massive they scraped away the faces of the mountains, which now stand in tall testimony to scopes of time that exceed human imagination.
The major glaciers have largely shrunk away over the millennia. Now even the remaining glaciers slumped between the mountains and clinging to their sides are melting away at a rate far exceeding that of natural processes. They are victims of global warming as are many glaciers and ice packs around the world.
We make our mark
The human imprint on Glacier National Park is also profound. A wonderful road traverses one of the prime passageways in the park. Going to the Sun Road winds its way up and across the face of glacially carved mountains. In winter the snow covers the road. Come spring the snow removal crews carve away the passage and by summer the biggest haunches of snow still drip and sweat water onto the roadways.
Cyclists climbing Going to the Sun Road, as my brother-in-law once did, must be prepared for a constant uphill grade and tight switchbacks. Then the
descent on either side can be harrowing, for the road edge is uncontrolled at some points, and shunted by short walls of rock in others. Built during the years when people in need of work performed public works, Going to the Sun Road is evidence that there are many kinds of creative forces in the universe.
Running into reality
I ran 4 miles up and back on Going to the Sun Road last time I was there in 2003. It was a slow slog up, compounded by a little bit of altitude. Between the pine trees were glimpses of St. Mary’s lake. The water from the ice melt fills the lake, which runs several hundred feet deep, and cold as ice. Giant trout lurk there, and local fisherman spray WD-40 oil on pork bits and drag them through the clean, clear water to leave a trail of oily scent for the fish to follow.
I learned these things hanging out on the shores of St. Mary’s Lake after runs. A very few fisherman worked the lake. I tried and caught nothing, but did land a couple salmon using bass lures in the river exiting the east end of the lake. But that’s cheating, and I quit right away. Salmon have tender mouths and should only be landed with fly fishing gear and small hooks.
Instead I engaged the lake on naked terms. I’d peel off my clothes and slip into the bone-chilling water after runs. Instantly the shrinkage all men fear would take hold unless you first gave yourself a shake or two for length and pride, of a sort. The muscles in your leg would contract. Going in all the way in up to the neck was painful. But I did it, because communing with the mountains requires a little pain, to appreciate the harsh truths they communicate.
I recall a time in the Rockies when my fitness was great and I decided to go run up the face of a “bowl” where the skree was not too deep. Forty steps into the runup I collapsed and scooted back down. The mountain was having none
of my frivolity. You don’t climb to the thin heights without paying your dues. Humility can be a good tool at times.
That’s true in the near term and in appreciation for what we see when we go to these places. Many afternoons I have spent studying mountain faces with binoculars, marveling at the millions of details you can see there, even a mountain goat or bighorn sheep, grizzly bear or mountain lion.
It’s all about fitness and competition and forces of nature, red in tooth and claw. The human condition, however, is about mediating those instincts. Yet how we treat each other is based upon how we see ourselves in the context of creation.
The scale of humility
The scale of geology is what should humble you. It can teach us so much.
Rock outcrops fell away into alluvial fans, those delta shapes of rock that form like reverse funnels where weather and wind and water and ice chip away the stone.
The very same forces that work on mountains also affect the sand in your child’s sandbox. When a sand wall breaks away the tiny specks of rock tumble down in an alluvial fan just as the rocks tumble down in the mountains. It’s all part of the same flow. Creation at work.
And if you expand instead of contract your scope, you can see amazing patterns at work as well.
Big Bang and life on earth
You can see the evidence for creation from the explosion that scientists call the Big Bang. Forget the cliches or the TV shows that make light of the science with all that Geekhood stuff.
The facts of our existence are clear in our physical makeup, yet drawn from the earliest of events in all creation. We’re chunks of carbon and all the minerals and elements that make up the universe. Life is the only (and mysterious) component that separates us from inanimate materials.
We run and ride and swim along gasping in for oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. We do that as hard as we can as athletes.
As we age the efficiency goes down somewhat, because our bodies are prone to the same erosive effects of time that affects the face of the mountains and the dark matter coursing through the cosmos. We sag on the surface and creak and groan on the inside, just like a mountain, or a galaxy.
Part of it all, or not
But take note: as we move across the face of this earth we can appreciate the power of these forces inside us, that drive us, and that we are part of a massive creation whether we regularly acknowledge it or not.
Some try to deny that our bodies and minds come from anywhere related to the rest of creation. They think we come from “whole cloth” and that creation itself was the product of 7 literal days of deific interpretation. They refuse to see the genetic connections we have with all other life, and the fact that we share 70% or more of our DNA patterns with every other living thing on the planet.
The science of denial
Denying these roots creates a sad separation in the minds of so many, who cannot reconcile their being with their being here. Some are taught to hate this life and all it offers. They’re taught to think of themselves as specially created, not connected with the universe other than through a claim of ownership and authorship. How sad that is, for it amounts to a science of denial.
Despite their beliefs and how ardently they defend them, their worldview is not biblical. Taking the Bible literally flies in the face of the very person upon whom their faith is supposedly grounded and founded. The person we call Jesus (actually, Yeshua) taught important life lessons using very symbolic examples from nature to convey spiritual principles. This was his organic fundamentalism. His parables relied upon nature to teach about God because God, he explained, can be found in all things.
That means you can’t go wrong learning about nature or using it to teach about the meaning of all things because nature, on its own, is not corruptible.
I know, that sounds like it runs counter to the idea of the Fall of Man, Original Sin and a fallen world and all that. But in order to truly understand the Bible and our place in the universe, you really need to look deeper and have a better understanding of nature to make it all possible. Even Jesus would tell you that.
A flood of realization
Let’s take a quick example. The real evidence for a Great Flood on this planet goes much farther back than five or six thousand years. We know from all the limestone deposited on the face of North America that the continent was once almost entirely covered by two great seas.
We also know from exact geological deposits on both Africa and South America that they were once connected. You can see their shapes in the pocket and bulges of those continents. For God’s Sake, they line up exactly.
Explanations for that movement took centuries of science to resolve, but we now know how the forces that drive plate tectonics really work. These processes explain everything from the structure of the continents and their locations to the very creatures that crawl and swim and fly across the face of those continents and the islands that trail off their massive tracks on the face of the earth.
We know that populations of living things, once separated from each other, are prone or required to adapt to the environments they find available. This works at the most incremental levels. As genetic mutations occurred at the most microscope level in the earliest living things, the advantages those changes conferred proved to be powerful selective forces in what survived and what didn’t. That meant things were actually “improving” based on the harshest of criteria. Competition was at first an unchosen mediator in the decisions about life on earth.
Art Imitates Life
The very first book I wrote back in 1980 was a piece of fiction in which the main character focused on a principle he called Life Tectonics, the idea that even our relationships reflect the tectonic processes that drive the rest of the world. I still think that’s true, and have heard so many art forms reflect that reality, such as the song “Crash” by Dave Matthews. In this passage we get a glimpse of the very sexual world in which we live, and the tectonics of physical contact:
Oh and you come crash
into me, baby
And I come into you
Hike up your skirt a little more
and show the world to me
Crashing into competition
Now we celebrate that harsh reality in the competitions in which we choose to engage. Like it or not, winning or losing is a harsh fact. Every race in which you compete is a rehearsal of the evolutionary forces that drive our universe. We bang into each other at the start of races and triathlons, fighting for position and trying to take the lead or merely find ourself a spot in the peloton, so we can draft, and ride, and look for advantage when the time comes, saving our energies for the moment when we might transcend even the confines of our own minds.
Crashing into reality
Get this: When you overtrain and get too tired, your body can be suddenly afflicted by the millions of microbes that live inside you. A cold virus can take over your sinuses or a flu bug can penetrate your body’s natural defenses. So while we think we’re winning we can actually be losing.
Infectious diseases are a potent reminder that evolution is always at work. The medical community lives in fear that infectious diseases are outstripping our ability to manufacture antidotes to infectious bacteria and viruses. AIDS migrated from one part of the natural world to the human race. Now we’re facing infections that hospitals can barely control or kill.
Frail fitness and prayers of hope
Fitness is a relative term, you see. We celebrate the most fit athletes because they are truly a defiant shove of the middle finger toward a world in a constant state of battle and ultimate decay. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust we go.
It all fits with the biblical notion of a fallen world, if you think about it. But how less capable we are to fight that notion if we do not recognize the very forces at work in creation that can take us down?
Is prayer going to do that? Perhaps it can help. But if you’re in need of surgery to save your life, the doctor may pray for a good outcome, but mostly they cut into you and fix what’s wrong.
It all fits together however. The pothole you see while riding or running is a reflection of the very same forces that first formed and then destroys those mountains. And those mountains got there by way of movements in the earth that made legends for the human race when we so little understood how it all works.
But now that we know more about how it all works, and why, and how, and what it means to us in terms of day to day living, and trying to protect the people we love from unnecessary death, and how we can live better lives through the fitness we build through exercise and better diet. There is no need to rely upon ignorance to protect our minds from reality. We need to do the opposite.
Creation is all around us. We run and ride through it every day. How you appreciate it can make all the difference in how you thrive and survive. We run and ride and swim to feel that reality. See you out there.