Credidero #9: Eternity

As I pondered this month’s Credidero topic over the past thirty days, it occurred to me fairly early on that there’s a “one of these things is not the like the other” facet to this particular concept, in that “Eternity” is the only one of the twelve topics that cannot be tangibly experienced by human beings in any way, because it does not actually exist in the natural world.

I could go take a walk right now and experience complexity, or hostility, or curiosity, or any of the other eight topics I’ve considered and written about before this one, but there’s no way for me to experience an infinite span of time — unless I put my absolute faith in the premise of eternal life after death, snuff myself, and evaluate never-ending time as a tree in Dante’s Forest of Suicides. Or, conversely, if I was unexpectedly squished by a bus, and all was well with my relationship with my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at that moment, in which case I could be granted eternal bliss in the presence of the The LORD and all of His angels, world without end, amen, amen.

I certainly don’t intend to do self-harm in the name of research, and I hope that there’s not a bus grill in my immediate future, so those avenues for exploring the concept of endless time are not on the table at this point. And even if they were, do I believe that my incorporeal soul would tread one of those paths when my incredibly fleeting time as a sentient seawater sack plays out? No, not really. I’ve formally directed that my bodily remains be cremated when that time comes, and they’ll presumably be scattered somewhere (informally, I’ve suggested that they should be put in a fire ant nest at Stoney Creek Cemetery), so the closest thing to eternity that the constituent bits which once were me will likely experience is a slow dispersal of elements which will be reintegrated into other living things (most likely plants, or fungi), which will feed other living things, until such time as life is exterminated from our planet’s face, or the planet itself ceases to be. And even then, some of those bits may travel through interstellar space, landing who knows where, who knows when, until the universe itself collapses, leaving behind . . . something? Maybe?

That will take a long, long time, for sure, but not an eternity, in the normal use of that word. While the earliest moments of the universe are mind-bogglingly complex and confusing, and its final moments will likely mirror that incomprehensible chaos, time as human beings understand it will have started at one point, and ended at another, a finite (though immense) period, short of the infinity required to accurately capture the core concept of eternity. Scientifically and objectively speaking, the story arc of every other human being, and every other living thing, will be exactly the same on a macro basis, and even if we aggregate all of the life spans and all of the experiences of all of things that have ever creeped, crawled and croaked across our planet’s surface, we’d still come up with a time span that approached infinity, but never actually reached it.

Eternity is, therefore, a non-existent physical state in a non-metaphysical universe. And yet, it’s a cornerstone concept of most global faith traditions, where gods always have been and always will be, and human souls are presumed to endure over never-ending time spans, once they are sparked into being. (One of the quirky things about infinity is that a thing that has no beginning and no end exists for the the same amount of time as a thing that has a beginning, but no end). A logical corollary of such belief systems is that the periods of time when our souls are resident in their physical forms are essentially non-existent in the grand scheme of things, as ~80 years of corporeal life divided by an infinite number of life-after-death years equals zero, mathematically speaking. If we go to hell after death, then eternity is suffering, always. If there’s a paradise, then eternity is bliss, always. Everything that we are, and everything that we do, in our physical lives, condenses down to a single, timeless point, a toggle-switch in which the indeterminacy of forever is resolved into one of only two possible eternal states.

While I wouldn’t have understood or stated it quite that way, I can tell you that few concepts were more terrifying to me as a young person than this one, having been raised in an evangelical Christian household. The concept of The Rapture — when all believers, alive and dead, would rise to meet The LORD in glory — made eternity even more terrifying, as it could happen any time, and if it occurred during that one little moment of doubt, or that one little second after temptation had become sin, then I would be left behind to bear the tribulation, the Second Coming and the Last Judgment, after which eternal damnation or eternal salvation awaited. All I knew as a young person was that if I had been bad, I could wake up one morning to find that my parents and all of the “good” people in my life were gone. In theory, that should have helped me to behave. In practice, I sinned with great aplomb, and was just scared all of the time that I wouldn’t be quick or thorough enough in my prayers for forgiveness to dodge that incoming Rapture bullet.

This was real enough in my world that I can remember having deadly earnest conversations with friends in middle school church youth groups about what we would do if didn’t make the cut when the Rapture came: where we would meet, how we would hide, what we would do, when finally faced with the undeniable reality of eternity, to ensure that we made the next cut together, and weren’t cast into eternal darkness and suffering. We saw it as some sort of post-apocalyptic action movie scenario, where we’d live on the run, protecting our little community at all costs from the Beast, and the Whore, and the Antichrist and their minions, faithful in our hidden catacomb headquarters, desperately repentant that we didn’t get it right the first time, determined to make amends if only given one more chance. And we had those conversations, more than once, because we all knew that we were woefully inadequate in our abilities to maintain sin-free, fully faithful lives, 24/7/365, so that the odds were stacked against us that we might all be right, true, and squared up in our faith at the precise moment when the virtuous souls began ascending. None of us pondered eternity with any expectation that it would be a positive experience, at bottom line. At least not without a whole lot of suffering before we got there, anyway.

So that’s what “eternity” meant to me through a good chunk of my formative years, a fraught concept fully anchored in an arcane belief system, and not in any observable reality — but terrifying nonetheless. That fear has abated over the ensuing decades, thankfully, and when I ponder the definition of eternity as “infinite time” now as an adult, I find that I can only perceive it at arm’s length, far more so than I can with any of the other Credidero concepts, as it has no meaningful impact or import in how I live my daily life and interact with other human beings. If I have any adult fears related to the concept, they spring from the knowledge that there are a shockingly large number of death cult zealots in positions of national leadership who are actively fomenting unrest in the Middle East in a misguided effort to hasten Armageddon and bring on the end times described by John the Revelator. I suppose eternity isn’t as frightening to them as it was to my young self, so secure are they in their faithful infallibility in the face of some final judgment. Must be nice.

Interestingly enough, the generally accepted definition of eternity as “infinite time” is (in relative terms) somewhat recent, having emerged only in the late Sixteenth Century. The ancient roots of the word are (possibly) found in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language’s aiw, meaning “vital [life] force.” From there we pass through the Latin aevum (age), aeviternus (great age), and aeternus (enduring). That latter form morphed into eternité in Old French, and thence into eternity in Late Middle English. The concept certainly captured long time spans over the aeons, if not infinite ones. There is also a specific philosophical usage where the word “eternity” means “outside of time,” as opposed to “sempiternity,” which is used to describe objects or concepts that exist now, and will continue to do so forever.

The crux of any discussion of eternity’s nuances, therefore, really hinges on whether the word is being used to describe very, very long time spans (which exist in our material world), or infinite ones (which do not). Which begs a second level question: does anything infinite really exist in the observable world? If there is no infinite time, is there an infinite distance, or an infinite mass, or an infinite number of some particular object(s), or anything else that has no beginning and no end when we attempt to count or measure it? Or even anything else that has no beginning and no end and exists somewhere else in the material world beyond our view or understanding?

I’m probably going to create a vision of myself as a most terribly neurotic child by sharing this, but I have to admit that “infinity” was another concept that kept me up at night as a young person, some years before fear of eternal damnation moved to the forefront of my existential anxieties. As a child of the ’60s, I was deeply fascinated by space exploration, and read voraciously about the topic. Our understanding of the solar system was a bit simpler then, with nine planets, and a readily countable and nameable number of natural satellites, plus some junk in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Beyond Pluto, there was Deep Space, which went on (we presumed) forever. I have specific memories of laying in bed thinking about that: I’d fly my mental space ship to Pluto, and then go further. And then further. And then further. And there would still be further to go. I could make myself woozy if I kept at it long enough, trying to comprehend space with no edge and no end. (Honestly, I could probably make myself woozy today if I thought too long about what’s out there 13.7 billion light years away from the center of the universe, at the very leading edge of the Big Bang’s reach; it’s just as mind-numbing to ponder now as it was then, if less scary).

Despite its questionable existence in the real world of tangible human experience (or our questionable ability to perceive it), infinity is a readily accessible, and useful, concept in higher mathematics, which fascinated me to no end when I was studying advanced calculus and differential equations in college. The key kluge to tangibly dealing with infinity is captured in the concept of mathematical limits, where the value of a function (or sequence) approaches some limit as the input (or index) approaches some other value. So we can say that the limit is zero as an input approaches infinity, or we can say that the limit is infinity as we approach zero, or any number of other possible permutations that can be framed by various formulae and equations. We can’t actually get to infinity, but we can understand what happens as we approach it, in perhaps simpler terms. We can also accept that anything divided by infinity is zero — but not that anything divided by zero is infinity. (I’ve seen various explanations and proofs of that concept over the years, and I accept them, though there’s still some sense of logical incongruity there for the casual mathematician).

My math studies in college were one place where contemplating the infinite, the imaginary, and the irrational — and the ways in which they can modeled — was actually a positive, pleasurable experience. One of the most sublime intellectual moments of my life was seeing the derivation and proof of Euler’s identity:

“π,” as most know, is the ratio of the circumference to its diameter. It is an irrational number (e.g. it cannot be written as a fraction), and to the best of our knowledge, it continues irrationally infinitely; it has currently been calculated out to 31.4 trillion digits, and it never repeats in any predictable or discernible fashion. “e” is Euler’s Number, the base of natural logarithms. It has been calculated out to about 8 trillion digits, as best I can ascertain, also continuing irrationally in perpetuity. “i” is the imaginary number unit, which is the square root of -1. It cannot be calculated as it does not exist in the set of real numbers, but it’s a cornerstone concept in complex number theory. “0” is of course, zero, the opposite of infinity, and 1 is the first non-zero natural number, and the first in the infinite sequence of natural numbers. The fact that these five numbers — discovered and/or calculated and/or understood in different times, different ways, and different places throughout history — are provably related in such an ultimately simple and elegant way still utterly blows my mind with wonder and awe, both at the natural order that produces such relationships, and at the human powers of observation that divined and codified it. 

Those mathematical studies also inspired and spilled over into my creative life at the time. Around 1983, I wrote a song called “Anathematics” (there’s a demo version of it here), which included these lyrics, among others:

There’s a school of thought that is so large, it can’t be learned by one.
Six hundred monks are studying it now, but they have just begun.
The more they think, the less they know. They less they know, they’re not.
The more they’re not, the less I am. There’s more to me, I thought.
The limit is zero as we approach infinity.
The future’s uncertain, as only the past can’t be.
Anathematics explains what cannot be . . .

It’s less elegant than Euler’s Identity, certainly, but it was an attempt to try to capture the awesome confusion of the infinitely big and the infinitely small and the ways in which they overlap, taken from the viewpoint of modeling that which cannot be, rather than that which can. So essentially a poetic (and much shorter) version of what I’m doing here in this article, with a stiff beat that you most certainly cannot dance to.

There’s another way, in my life right here and right now, that I find myself reflecting on the limits of eternal time and eternal distance. My wife, daughter, and I all have the Drake Equation tattooed on our right forearms. Here it is, if you’re unfamiliar with it, along with an explanation of the terms embedded within it:

The Drake Equation was written in 1961 by Dr Frank Drake as a probabilistic argument to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. We know a lot more about some of the variables today than we did when Drake postulated this argument (e.g. rate of star formation, fraction of stars with planets, etc.), but for most of the variables related to life, we’re obviously still operating with an observable set of one species on one planet with the ability to cast electromagnetic signals outward to the stars, and we haven’t been doing it for very long, at all.

“L” in some ways is the most interesting variable to me, since we have no idea how long we’re going to be able to keep broadcasting before we destroy ourselves, or something else destroys us. I suspect in the grand scheme of things, it’s likely going to end up being a relatively small number. Imagine, though, if L for human and other civilizations was vastly large, approaching eternal, meaning that once a planet began broadcasting, it would broadcast forever, or at least until the collapse of the universe. I believe that were that the case, we’d be picking up myriad signals from across the galaxy, since I also believe that we are not the first planetary civilization to develop broadcast capabilities since the Milky Way emerged some 13.5 billion years ago. (Compare that to the current estimated age of the universe at 13.7 billion years . . . our galaxy was born about as early as it was physically possible for it to, if our understanding of those ancient events is accurate. Wow!)

Given the immense distances at play, I’m not sure that we’d ever actually meet any of the other civilizations, but it would be transformative for humans on a planetary basis to know that we’re not alone, rather than simply believing it. It would also be truly revelatory to know that our sentient non-human colleagues in our universe are not metaphysical in nature (e.g angels, demons, gods and goddesses), but exist instead in the knowable, experiential world of real things. I’m not a dewy-eyed optimist about how that knowledge would instantly make everything better on earth (we’d likely still be prone to inhumanity in our dealings with others of our species), but it would certainly answer a lot of big questions, and it would certainly present some big opportunities.

After we got the Drake Equation tattoos, my wife summarized what she thinks when she looks at hers thusly: “It reminds me that we are small, but special.” True that, for sure, for now. Given the fact that a longer “L” for humanity means we would have a higher probability of eventually demonstrating that “N” is greater than 1, I’d be most inclined to adopt and hew to a belief structure and practice that’s anchored in managing our lives, our cultures, our civilizations and our planet in ways that increase the likelihood of extending “L” for as long as humanly possible. It seems to me that a belief in and commitment to the tangible (though as yet indeterminate) time span “L” is of greater utility than being afraid of and/or longing for a metaphysical eternity and what it might (though probably doesn’t) represent and contain.

So is anybody up for starting The Church of Maximum “L,” with a defining core belief that “N” is greater than one, if we can only stick around long enough to establish contact and connect? I’d be a darned good early apostle if you need one.

Two-thirds of the family’s Drake Equation tattoos, freshly inked . . .

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this ninth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Five: “Authority”

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #8: Complexity

The concepts of “complexity” and “divinity” seem to be inextricably interwoven in much of Western religious and cultural thought. One of the most famous renderings of this philosophical and teleological duality is “The Watchmaker Analogy,” which was explored at length in English clergyman William Paley’s 1802 treatise Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Paley opened his tome thusly:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there . . . Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

The gist of Paley’s argument boils down to the presumption that when you find a watch, there must be a watchmaker.  So, therefore, when you find a stone, there must also be a stonemaker. And then when you find a perfectly articulated shoulder joint, there must be a perfectly articulated shoulder joint-maker. And then when you find a flaming bag of poop, there must be a flaming bag of poop-maker. Well, okay, actually Reverend Paley didn’t mention that last one. It was just the anchor concept from a humorous collaborative piece I wrote many years ago, in which some colleagues and I envisioned a dialog between Charles Darwin (in Hell) and The LORD about Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy. It piqued my curiosity enough to explore it all those years ago, even if in a satirical form, and it was the very first thing that popped to my mind when I rolled the 12-sided die last month and had “Complexity” selected as the topic of this month’s Credidero article.

Charles Darwin himself also spent a fair amount of time thinking about The Watchmaker Analogy, well before he went to Hell, even. Darwin was aware of and fond of Paley’s work, and scholars have theorized, with clear reason and reasoning, that Darwin’s explanations of natural selection in On The Origin of Species are actually framed and intended as respectful scientific counter-arguments to those made in Natural Theology.  Even Richard Dawkins, the high priest of neo-atheists and father of all memes, evokes Paley in the title of his influential 1986 tome The Blind Watchmaker. The good Reverend’s final book remains in print, and is a cornerstone text in modern “intelligent design” circles. Those are sure some long and limber legs for such a nominally arcane older text.

Given his longstanding popularity and cultural resonance, if you want to frame arguments for or against complexity as a function of a divine creator, Paley’s as good of a starting point as you’re likely to find. Unless, of course, you’re too much of a fundamentalist to see his work as anything more than a derivative text, and you just want to jump straight to the opening lines of the primary text upon which all of Western (and by Western, I mean American) religious culture has been erected:  “And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of The LORD moved upon the face of the waters. And The LORD said, let there be light: and there was light,” sayeth the Book of Genesis, which many Evangelical types interpreteth as the literal Word of The Lord, their God and Savior. A few verses later, as we mostly all know, The LORD went on to make day and night, and stars and sky, and land and seas, and the sun and the moon, and plants and animals, and mankind and naps, with each day’s creations more complex than the ones that came before.

As the very first appearance of The LORD in The Bible highlights His ability to create complexity where none existed before, that seems to be the professional trait of which He (or his public relations team) is most proud, and He continues to conjure up something from nothing (stepping up complexity every time) throughout the Old Testament, in between all the smiting and the flooding and the worrying about what women are up to with their bodies that He so seems to enjoy in His spare time. Then later, when The LORD’s only begotten Son decides to unveil his own formidable chops as proof of his divinity in the New Testament, He does it by creating wine from water at a wedding party, simply by adding that magically divine special ingredient: complexity. Bro-heem Christ could have just ended his career right there and still been a legend.

The underlying viewpoint that increasing complexity requires some force greater than that which mere humans can muster isn’t restricted to matters of natural science. Case in point: Erich Von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, and the many sequels and imitators in print and on screen that followed it. The central argument of these tomes is that the design and construction skills behind ancient objects like the Great Pyramids or Nazca Lines or Stonehenge or the Easter Island statues were complex beyond human capabilities at the time, and therefore must have required inhuman assistance, only in this case not from The LORD, but rather from super-intelligent extraterrestrial beings.

I must admit that I ate those books up as a kid, their logic seeming so very obvious and profound to my 10- to 12-year old mind. But I’d certainly raise my eyebrows and smirk these days at anybody over the age of 16 or so who cited them as part of their mature understanding of the world in which we live, just as I do with people who consider the works of Ayn Rand to be rational adult fare. If we can’t figure out how something complex was built or got done, it seems like intellectual defeatism to simply attribute it to super-powerful unseen entities — either divine or extraterrestrial or John Galt — rather than just working harder to figure it out, and then recognizing that humanity’s ability to create complex objects and artifacts does not necessarily proceed in a linear fashion.

We cannot build a Saturn V rocket today, to cite but one of many examples. That doesn’t mean that those epic machines were built by Jesus, or dropped on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral by Bug-Eyed Monsters. It just means that the industrial base required to build them doesn’t exist anymore as our Nation’s economic, political and military needs evolved. Which I strongly suspect is also the case with pretty much every one of Erich Von Däniken’s examples of the allegedly extra-human skills required to build all of those ancient wonders. Humans, then, now, and in the future, are capable of great complexity in our creations, and if we care enough about something  — putting a man on the man and bringing him home safely before the end of the decade, building a tomb that will last forever, or impressing the ladies on the other side of the island with the chunky heft and knee-melting girth of our massive stone heads — then we’ll work marvels large and small to get ‘er done.

So why do so many people default to the notion that immense complexity requires some form of divinity as its motive force? I suspect it is because the natural order of things is to reduce complexity — bodies to ashes to dirt to dust, cities to ruins to iron to rust — so when we see something, anything, pushing valiantly against the never-ending corruption of eternal entropy, we are temperamentally inclined to judge it special, and meaningful, and not just an anomalous series of natural processes organized in a particular way that slows or reduces or offsets entropic forces for some (likely brief) period of time. In the observable universe, entropy always wins in end, so if we want to believe that acts and examples of increasing complexity are permanent, then a belief in something outside of or beyond that which can be known and understood with our senses and intellects is a darn good way to avoid dwelling on the fact that we and our creative works are going to die and become dirt at some point in the very, very near future, speaking in cosmic time scales.

In looking at casual Christian theology and practice, I sort of like the next order of logical thought that tumbles from this one: if complexity is the realm of God the Watchmaker, then is its opposite, entropy, the particular expertise of Lucifer, His Enemy? The written record on Beelzebub is certainly rife with destruction, and fall, and spoilage, and violation, and war, and madness, and off the cuff, I’d be hard-pressed to think of examples where the Crimson King showed complex, creative chops like those the Father, Son and Holy Spirit trot out at the slightest provocation to bedazzle their admirers. God makes, the Devil breaks, and as long as The LORD stays one step ahead of his nemesis, order prevails.

But if The LORD spent too much time watching over one particularly needy tiny sparrow, would Old Scratch turn the tables on Him (and us) and pull apart the fabric of the known and knowable? I think that when the Beast and the False Prophet and the Dragon are finally cast into the Lake of Fire in the Apostle John’s Book of Revelation, what we’re seeing is actually a metaphorical depiction of the final removal of entropy from the world. I’m guessing that the New Heaven and New Earth and New Jerusalem were seen by Saint John on Patmos as the most fabulously complex constructs imaginable in his time, and that most readers of the Apocalypse since then also envision them in such terms, defined by the norms of whatever time and place that they are pondered. The LORD’s not gonna come live with His people in a humble casita or pre-fab double wide now, is He? Nuh uh. The buildings in that glorious end-of-times city are going to have flying buttresses upon their flying buttresses, and there might even be a Saturn V pad in every yard, plus unlimited pocket watches available upon demand.

I recognize, of course, that I’m being a bit silly here in my analysis of complexity as it’s defined by The Watchmaker Analogy, just as I was being a bit silly when I first wrote The Flaming Bag of Poop-Maker circa 2003-2004. And I guess that’s because whenever I think about that particular argument for the existence of a Supreme Being, it just seems so very obviously and inherently ridiculous to me that responding in kind is the only logical approach to tackling it. There are so many arguments for the existence of God, and so many of them seem more sound and embraceable to me than Reverend Paley’s. I suppose my opinion might be different if I actually thought that The LORD created the world over seven days, some 6,000 years ago (thank you very much, Archbishop Ussher), but given 4.5 billion years for our planet’s natural forces to do their things, with the universe as a whole having an 8.3 billion year head start on our stellar system, I’m not in the least bit surprised by magnitudes of complexity far beyond all human understanding, since we’ve only been collectively pondering such matters for (at most) about 0.2% of Earth’s natural history.

To be clear, though, this does not in any way mean that I do not marvel regularly at the complexity of creation, even if creation created itself. I’m truly and deeply awed by so many complex natural things, from the little creepy-crawly ones that I rescue when I see them on sidewalks to the immense ones light years and light years away from us that I gaze at in stupefaction during the (increasingly rare) times when I have an unobstructed view of a night sky free from light pollution. I’m amazed by the complexity of my own body (creaky as it is), and by the complexity of my own brain’s machinations (awake and asleep), and by the complexity of the sea of emotions in which I swim, loving this, ignoring that, hating the other. I’m well read, reasonably smart, and actively interested in understanding how things work, and I still can barely perceive the tiniest bits of what natural selection has wrought upon the living things around me, as we all hop atop a ridiculously complex ball of elements and minerals and fluids, all governed by forces strong and weak, gravitational and electromagnetic.

Really and truly, I don’t perceive natural complexity as proof of divinity, I perceive natural complexity as divinity in its own right. The complex and ever-evolving canons of chemistry, physics and biology are the closest things I’d admit to admiring as sacred primary texts. I could spend a lifetime studying them, and understand as much as my brain could possibly absorb, and still I would be awed beyond comprehension by the complexity of the natural order in which I function, for the very short, sweet, warm time that I’m blessed to be a self-regulating blob of motile biochemical materials, animated by a denser blob inside my beautifully complex upper bony structure, within which everything that is really, truly me resides, amazingly and incredibly distinct from all of the universe’s possible not-me’s.

At bottom line, I don’t need to worship a fanciful Watchmaker, because I am perfectly content to worship the Watch itself. And the stone next to the Watch on Reverend Paley’s heath. And the tiny dinosaurs that hop around the stone, cheep cheep cheep! And the moo-cow that might pass us all by, chewing a cud rich with uncountable organic oozes, as I talk to the Cheep Cheeps, wishing I had some sunflower seeds in my pocket for them. And the 4,000 miles of metal and stone between me and the Earth’s center as I look down, and the uncountably, immeasurably vast distances above me as I look up, gazing billions of years into the past, perceiving light from way back then as it arrives in the right now on its way to the yet to come. There’s nothing in the Book of Genesis that can rival that, if we’re going to fairly assess things. Nor in Atlas Shrugged.

And now I’ve swung from a most silly approach to assessing complexity to a most abstractly profound one, likely more than two standard deviations away at both ends of the spectrum from how normal people in normal times in normal places would perceive normal complexity. Whatever “normal complexity” might be, anyway. Perhaps that’s an oxymoron? Perhaps it’s a phrase that doesn’t normally exist because it doesn’t need to? Or perhaps it’s just a simple way to describe the chaotic world in which we live and work, driven by complex forces that we often do not see, recognize or appreciate?

I’m inclined to grab that third explanation/definition when thinking about human complexity in human-driven spaces. There’s lots of stuff that we collectively create swirling around us, and when I ponder that, I’m still most drawn to the most complex examples of it, most of the time. I like the Ramones well enough, to cite a musical example, but I adore the far-more-complex King Crimson. Likewise in my taste for visual arts, where extreme abstraction and deeply technical compositions move me far more than literal still lifes and figure studies. My list of top movies is also rife with multi-layered surrealist complexities, while I tend to forget simpler character-based rom coms hours after I watch them. Books? I’ll take the complex Gormenghast Trilogy and The Islanders and The Flounder over the simpler The Old Man and the Sea and Of Mice and Men and The Call of the Wild any day. Man-made creative complexity is good in my eyes. It resonates with me. It moves me. It inspires wonder in me. It represents the spaces where we become most Watchmakery, to return to Reverend Paley’s paradigm.

There’s one weird exception when it comes to my love for complexity, and that would be work. I’m a deep devotee of the “keep it simple, stupid” paradigm in the office, and if you interviewed anybody who’s ever worked for me over the past 30+ years, they’d likely cite my penchant for process streamlining and organizational simplification, and my loathing for clerical redundancy and structural inefficiency. When it comes to my professional work, less complex is more desirable, almost to a point of fetishism. I suppose this could be explained altruistically, with me taking the position that my time equates to my organizations’ money, so that deploying my own time and the other human resources around me most efficiently represents a truly ethical approach to stretching our resources as far as they may be stretched. But I think the honest reality is that I view work as a thing that has to be completed before I can play with the complex things that move me more deeply, so by taking the least moves possible to achieve desired professional outcomes, I can preserve the energy I need to take the most moves possible toward the complexities that most amuse and entertain and inspire me. “Wasting time on the man’s dime, yo!” There’s a professional creed to motivate the masses, for sure.

If simple work is the opposite of complex fun, just as entropy is the opposite of creation, just as the Devil is the opposite of the Watchmaker, then we’ve got to wrap back around to opening arguments and conclude by accepting that work must be the purview of Satan, and play must be the purview of God, and that we model ourselves most clearly in His image when we frolic in fields of phlox and fescue and philosophy and felicity and feeling and friends and family and festivity and fun.

I’m ultimately happy to embrace such a simple truth when staring into the awesome face of such a stupidly, gloriously complex universe as ours!

Step aside, simple ones! Complex Nazca Line Building Alien coming through!

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this eighth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Eleven: “Eternity”

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity


I have been deeply amused today by the #UnscienceAnAnimal hashtag on Twitter. The basic concept: pick an animal and label it, but without science. There are floofs and snoots and noodles aplenty among the gazillions of entries that folks have created and shared over the past couple of days, most of them guaranteed smile-makers.

Being a dorky nerd, I of course had to participate in this little festival of idiocy, so here are my three unscienced animal entries. Click to enlarge for added giggles. Heh heh. Heh. Heh heh heh.



AMERICAN BADGER  (Click the link for proper soundtracking on this one)

Regular English Speaking Tree Nerd On Holiday

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the January 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here. Also, if you don’t get the reference in the title of this post, then you must go play this video while or after reading the article.

It’s always an extra treat to travel when you’re a tree nerd, since you get to play “canopy compare and contrast” between your home turf and your destination(s) while you are abroad. Marcia and I greeted 2019 with a trip to London and Paris, and my FitBit tells me that we walked 160,000 steps (about 80 miles) over the course of the week, much of that time spent with me ooo-ing and ahh-ing at special street trees or historic park trees or “what the heck is that?” trees we passed as we ambled about.

I love London Planes (Platanus × acerifolia) anywhere I spot them, and it was particularly delightful to see so many mighty specimens at the heart of their namesake city, their dappled trunks striking in sun or shade, and their distinctive seed balls providing “winter interest” as you surveyed the streetscape. In Paris we strolled the Bois de Boulogne with its native and curated forests, and we admired the Tilias that abound throughout the city, and which lay people call lindens, or basswoods, or limes, depending on where they make their homes.

We spent a lot of time in airplanes getting to and from Europe, and also had a nice EuroStar train trip via the “Chunnel” between London and Paris. This gave me a hefty amount of quiet time to read (more than I normally have, anyway), and the tree nerd in me was happy with that prospect, too, as I read a most remarkable book about trees, and people, and people and trees called The Overstory by Richard Powers.

I have to assume that if you’re reading this article in the TREE Fund newsletter that you’re at least a little bit of a tree nerd yourself, too, and so I most heartily recommend this book to you. It’s a transcendent novel that twines the tales of a half dozen wildly dissimilar humans into a single, solid, towering, powerful creative monument, with every step of the story given shape and substance by trees. The New York Times perhaps captured this concept best in their review of the book, where they noted “humans are merely underbrush; the real protagonists are trees.”

While The Overstory can resonate with those who don’t necessarily love or know their trees (e.g. it was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, awarded to the best novel in the English language issued each year), it was positively electrifying to me given my professional avocation. It’s not every day that mycorrhizal networks pop up and play key roles in a work of fiction, after all, but they’re quiet superstars here.

Like all great novels, The Overstory leaves the reader with a lot to consider when it has run its course, and while not everyone may agree with all of Powers’ implied or explicit lessons and morals, I can guarantee that his words, his stories, the magic of his prose, and most of all his trees will resonate with you all.

Happy reading, and let me know what you think!

Street trees had a big role in the experience of New Year’s Eve on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Research Without Frontiers

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column as a preview teaser of the forthcoming October 2018 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE FundYou can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

Earlier this month, I attended the International Urban Forestry Congress in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Congress was a unique gathering presented by Tree Canada, Pacific Northwest Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), University of British Columbia, Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, and other partners. Nearly 800 people from 30 countries participated, and we were blessed with fascinating and useful lectures, engaging panel discussions, exceptional networking opportunities, and an unparalleled “battery charging” opportunity to spend time with colleagues away from our proverbial trenches, sharing our passions for urban forests around our ever-more-connected (for better or worse) tiny blue marble of a planet.

It was good to be reminded that TREE Fund is part of that global research network, and not just an Illinois corporation, nor just a United States nonprofit, nor just a North American charity. This is reflected in our grant-making programs: we typically award two Jack Kimmel International Grants in partnership with the Canadian TREE Fund annually, and a growing number of grants from our other programs have been going abroad in recent years too.

I know some readers may not consider this a positive trend, since I have had domestic partners challenge me on why they should support us if we are sending money overseas, just as I have had ISA Chapters ask why they should support us if researchers in their regions are not receiving TREE Fund grants. Regionalism is a strong force among human beings, nationally and internationally. But trees (and their symbiotic companions and parasitic predators) do not recognize property lines, nor do they hew to municipal borders, nor do they heed state lines, nor do they respect international borders.

Trees are migratory organisms across our ever-changing world, as they slowly and naturally respond to global environmental changes, or rapidly stake out new turf when we select them to line streets and shade homes on continents where nature never would have taken them. And while human preferences and prejudices vary widely from nation to nation, both native and non-native urban trees living in temperate Mediterranean climates like those found in Beirut, Perth, Los Angeles, Rome, Tunis and elsewhere may benefit from exactly the same areas of rigorous scientific inquiry, regardless of where the researchers disclosing it work and live.

I say all this as an older, pragmatic and practical American professional, and not as an inexperienced, pie-in-the-sky Utopian. Trees are a global resource, and tree science is globally relevant, regardless of any of our social, economic, religious or political leanings. TREE Fund is a small — but mighty — player in this planetary network, and we become stronger every time we gather with colleagues from around the world on behalf of the planet’s urban canopies.

Okay, so maybe this Vancouver tree does want some boundaries . . .

Keeping Charity Charitable

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the September 2018 edition of TREE Press. You can read the whole edition here, including our quarterly Research Report insert, which focuses on TREE Fund research conducted by Dr. Brian Kane, the Massachusetts Arborists Association Professor of Commercial Arboriculture at UMass Amherst.

As the leaves begin to color and drop here in Northern Illinois over the next few weeks, we will be rolling out our individual year-end fundraising appeal, as hard as it is to believe that the end of the fiscal year is already drawing near. We’re on track for another great year in 2018, but the unrestricted operating funds earned via the year-end appeal are crucial to our ongoing success, so my thanks to all in advance for considering us in your charitable plans in the weeks ahead.

The “charitable” component of that sentiment is more important than usual this year, as many of you are no doubt evaluating how changes in the Federal tax code could impact the deductibility of your gifts to TREE Fund and other nonprofits. While TREE Fund is not in the business of providing financial advice, we do know that many of you may find it financially beneficial this year to use the increased standard deduction in lieu of itemizing your deductions (including charitable giving), which will reduce the strictly financial tax return benefit you receive from each dollar of your charitable giving in 2018.

I respectfully hope, though, that you do not change your giving plans for that reason, since the charitable good you do for TREE Fund is actually independent of any quid pro quo tax benefit you receive as a result of your philanthropy. Charity is, by its very definition, the voluntary giving of help, typically via money, to those in need — and TREE Fund does indeed need your continued support if we are to build on and expand our research and education programs going forward, especially as Federal funding for urban forestry research and education may decline in parallel with lower revenues from Federal taxes.

TREE Fund is a charity, at bottom line, worthy of support for the good work we do, and for the benefits that our research and education results deliver to communities around the world. It is only through your charitable support that we are fully able to be a force for good in the world, funding vital, beneficial work that few others do. I’ve spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector, and I know that when push comes to shove, that sense of doing something righteous, and making a difference through your gifts, is the truly fundamental motivator for donors, one that resonates deeply in ways that simple monetary benefit from tax deductibility cannot.

Here’s hoping you share that sentiment with me, and that we can continue to count on you to do good for a good cause this year when you receive a letter from me asking for your support in the weeks ahead, or even if you’re inspired to give right here, right now. You may or may not receive a meaningful tax benefit from giving to us this year, but the moral and ethical benefit of sharing your resources openly and without restriction on behalf of TREE Fund or other charities you respect is profound and lasting. At the end of the day, it’s simply a good thing to do — and I remain personally committed to ensuring that we leverage your support widely, and serve as responsible stewards for funds entrusted to our care.

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present . . .” (Albert Camus)