This morning during a four-mile run in a driving rain, I hugged the edge of the asphalt by a busy four-lane road. Cars hissed past on the wet surface, and raindrops struck my face with such force it stung. I rounded the big curve of Orchard Road and turned east relieved that the next couple miles would be on a bike path, and not straight into the wind.
Then I rounded the corner with a mile to go and picked up the pace. I felt so good this morning I could have been thirty years younger. So I let the legs have their way and took my brain out of the equation.
But as I rolled along an object appeared on the road ahead. I’m always on the lookout this time of year because migrating birds are often struck by cars. I always stop to examine the odd thrush or owl that takes a road hit.
This one only happened to be a robin. But it was lying there in a classic pose of the dying bird. Head thrown back. Feet lightly curled toward its tail.
It is the same pose that fossilized dinosaur birds such as the archaeopteryx show in fossilized form. Recent discoveries of fossilized birds have documented the evolutionary history of early species of feathered dinosaurs. In fact, the lineage of dinosaur and birds may be inseparable. The creatures we call birds are actually extensions of the dinosaur populace.
It so happened that ur family gathered around the TV Sunday night to watch the epic Jurassic Park. That movie makes the case that recovered dinosaur DNA could lead to the regeneration of species such as tyrannosaurus rex. Of course, that isn’t true in real life, but imaginative prospects are real enough to generate an entire series of movies in which reality is placed in suspended animation. We willingly immerse ourselves in the amber of fantasy.
Yet staring down at that dead robin in the rain, I could sense that dinosaur lineage. We are not so separated from the past as we might like to think. Human beings have their ancient descendants too. Our bipedal ancestors wandered out on the savanna by necessity. That method of locomotion freed our hands to carry things, and freed our arms to run in an upright position.
Every person out there running owes a debt to the raw determination of living things that existed 350,000 years ago or 60 million years ago. And even that’s not long by earth’s standards of time. Our evolutionary history is but a drop in the rain bucket of time.
Of course, the ripple effect of that drop has now covered the earth with marks of human activity. We cultivate and consume at will. Hungry for property and possessions, the human race invents and destroys with such fervor it can’t even keep up with its own garbage.
The bones we bury in rituals will be our fossil legacy. For it is highly unlikely the human race will last another 300,000 years here on earth. The planet is not inexhaustible but we’re clearly treating it like it is. Those stubborn dopes who don’t believe the earth has limits happen to the principal advocates for the combination of greed and selfish religion. Some even welcome the idea that a New Earth will be born from the ashes of the one we destroy through our habits and our sins. This is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only it is not fulfilling, only selfish.
Not so original sins
Wishful thinking has never cured much in this world. Nor has religion really had much of an effect on the behavior of its most ardent believers. The Bible clearly sucks as a science book and most of the time it doesn’t do all that much to control the appetites of those who consider themselves the most righteous of souls, and who most ardently defend it.
Instead, many who abide by it like to claim that it empowers them somehow. I well recall the race in which a guy that beat me wore some sort of Jesus shirt. He pointed up to the sky when he finished the race in first place, with me trickling in behind. He acted as if God had guided his every step or Jesus was his co-pilot. He imagined somehow that he could earn favor by making a show of his faith. Well, the Book of Matthew looks at that subject differently: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”
Thus I say bullshit to his claims of providence or the fairer grace of God. As for me, I just felt shitty that morning and didn’t run very well. The next week my time was a full minute faster than the day the Jesus Guy beat me.
He’ll be buried or burned in the end just like me. Our fleshly accomplishments largely mean nothing in the scheme of things. Olympic champions go back to their difficult lives just like the journeyman distance guys. In the end, it’s what we make of the meaning of our efforts, not the other way around.
And what should we actually learn from the running and riding and swimming that we do? Does it embolden us in imagination? Does it help us understand the temporal nature of our existence?
I’ve sat bedside with parents and spouses as they pass from this world. What it has taught me is that our existence is at once shallow and real at the same time. It is quite difficult to penetrate the surface of time, that thin skin of awareness on which we all skim along. But I can say that many of the moments when I have felt most alive in this world is when I have been in full motion.
And that makes me think of the archaeopteryx. At one point those dinosaur birds jumped and ran and used their burgeoning wings to lift themselves off the surface of the ground and climb trees or soar down through the branches back to earth. Those feathers put to good use made life much more real, active and interesting. That is the story of life itself, always pushing the limits. Always reaching for something new.
So it is a joyous thing in many respects that a formerly obscure dinosaur bird, once lost to history, should emerge in the form of a fossil for us to consider. How intimate a reality that is. And how important an insight.
The archaeopteryx defies all conventions. It is an archaeological liberality that people who trust both science and imagination grasp as significant. For here is the truth: the direct relatives of the archeopteryx are alive and flying all around us if we consider these realities. A dead robin along the side of the road proves that this is true.