This past weekend, Marshall and I drove up to Washington, DC, with the Flowsers.  While I was mostly excited to just get the hell out of Knoxville for a few days, I was also really looking forward to seeing the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  I’d seen pictures of their blue whale hanging from the ceiling, and their T-rex bones, and was hoping they’d have cases and cases of pinned butterflies and beetles.  Was disappointed by the butterflies and beetles, but the fossils did not—could not—disappoint.  As a matter of fact, they stirred up my brain so much that I couldn’t really talk about them much while in DC, and am now writing about them, writing prose and poetry alone on my porch about time and what happens on this planet.

I remember the books we had as kids, all the color pictures of dinosaurs and fossilized dinosaur eggs, the mastodon and mesohippus and mammoth.  Images of the velociraptor clawing some smaller, shrieking animal.  Of the mammoth, struggling in huge drifts of snow.  Walking around the corner of the Natural History Museum and seeing the T-rex skeleton looming above was something very much else.  Suddenly, I realized that dinosaurs actually lived.  And, just as interestingly, they died.  All.  Marshall and I followed each other silently through paleozoic, mesozoic, fossilized ferns and schools of small fish, skeletons of allosaurus with a broken and healed shoulder blade and the strangely long diplodicus.  Big cats with astonishing teeth, elk with astonishing antlers.  The time that has passed on this planet is mind-boggling.  And I appear and will disappear like a flash.

Apparently, according to the evidence, species have diverged, temperatures have risen, fallen.  According to the clues, awesome amounts of time have passed, and are out of all memory.  Natural selection favors a species, draws it up, grows it large, fierce, and intelligent, and then the earth cools.  A plaque I read underneath a gigantic elk-like animal said that gigantism is risky: the large animals, of whom there are few (the environment not being able to support large numbers of them), who require long gestational periods and whose young take longer to mature, are vulnerable on this changing planet.  They conquer and dominate, and when the climate cools, or warms, they don’t adapt well.  How many proboscideans have lived (so many, so many), and have subsided into one lonely elephant family, the only living members.

This intrigues me, to no end.  How does God order this ball of teeming life?  Is natural selection merciful, or without mercy?  Is climate change merciful, or without mercy?  When the carnivorous dinosaurs fell, died in curled death poses, their prey were allowed to live.  They were allowed, possibly, to dominate, to migrate, to adapt and move into larger and larger manifestations, with—perhaps—more and more teeth.  And then, the earth warmed.  As the ice sheets withdrew, mammoths—for instance—gave way to their prey, fell off the top of their empire of tundra.  Is this a kind of balance?  That the powerful must fall, that each upheaval calls on the creativity of the planet’s life for new kinds of living?  That small, struggling things are elevated, are allowed to see the deaths of their enemies?

The tides of life seem something like fickleness, like the favor of God, given and withdrawn.  Is a cooling planet the favor of God toward the animals who are able to keep warm?  The judgment of God on the animals who are unable?  Or is the favor of God something else, something more like genetic resilience, inventiveness, the ability of life to persist on this dangerous planet?  What is just or unjust, here?  What does extinction mean?  What does predation mean?  What’s happening to us on this planet, and what is going to happen?  I have so little idea.

I don’t know if these are good questions or not—they seem to be the regular old ones about theodicy.  But the visit to the museum refreshed them, for me.  Having new reasons to ask questions is good.  Revisiting old questions on new terms is good.  I hope I will always return to curiosity.

 

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