April 15, 2014
In the beginning, the First People and the Animals shared precious Mother Earth with an immense orb of flame so hot and intensely light they feared blindness and fire. The orb of flame must somehow be moved, they agreed, or the First People would perish. What to do?
There was a long silence then Vulture spoke: “I will lift the orb of flame into the sky.” Vulture lowered his head and lifted the orb and balanced it and flew the orb of flame into the sky, the brave bird’s feathers afire and the First People weeping for this unselfish act. And Vulture hung the orb high in the sky, lighting the entire world and heating it, and it was good. Vulture flew back to Earth, the feathers of his head and neck burned off and his naked head colored blood red. Which is why, to this day, vultures do not have feathers on their heads.
The orb became Sun. The people warmed their bodies and exulted in the light. But they were vexed when they saw Sun disappear and total darkness fell upon them. Sun returned, but persisted in appearing and disappearing and the First People grew afraid.
The elders convened and agreed that Sun must be a god. The God of Light, they opined, required sacrifice. They built an altar atop a magnificent mound of earth higher than the tallest trees and a maiden was chosen for sacrifice. She was given a pipe of narcotic smoke and she puffed on the pipe and soon fell into a trance. The Shamans prayed to the Sun and the maiden was decapitated and buried with ceremony. And Sun appeared. And sacrifices were regularly performed, and it was good and the First People flourished.
In 1990, I met Dr. John Gofman at a conference at Northwestern University. Gofman, then in his 70s, had a PhD in nuclear physics and was a medical doctor. He had worked on the Manhattan Project and extracted the first teaspoonful of plutonium in history, for the first atomic bomb experiment. In mid-career, Dr. Gofman became opposed to nuclear experiments and spent the rest of his life researching the effects of radiation on the body and speaking around the world about the link between cancer and radioactivity.
I was working for a citizen’s group fighting a proposed nuclear dump in their county, on the Illinois River. I approached Gofman and we talked for an hour. He knew about the waste dump proposal and what he told me on that summer day was eye opening.
Radioactivity, from bomb tests, the bombs exploded in World War II, the introduction of nuclear plants and waste dumps, engulfs the entire planet. Much of this light energy has a half life of 250,000 years. If we could see radiation, Gofman told me, if it were colored pink, say, we would see the world through a dense pink filter, and people would go mad. But we can’t see it or taste it or feel it. It penetrates our bodies and stores in our cells and causes genetic damage which will be passed to all future relatives and manifest itself in cancers and other diseases.
“Future archaeologists,” John Gofman told me, “after a considerable time span with few humans left alive—and this span is inevitable because of radiation sickness and the rise since the 40s of carcinogenic plastics and toxic chemicals—will open up our waste dumps and be killed. Instantly, if it’s plutonium waste; over decades, for ‘low level waste.’ It’s like in the “Mummy” movies, greedy explorers opening up tombs and unleashing fury. In this case, the mummy is radiation. We are like the Aztecs, sacrificing people to the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli. The new Sun God is Radiation, and we ignorantly embrace it and feed it our loved ones.”
Two and a half million years ago, humans stood up and looked over the tall grasses of Africa. This single advantage evolved to an intelligence which gave us dominion over animals and other species of humans. We were four-footed animals but we forgot. Species began to go extinct thousands of years ago. Animals had no souls; we did. Now we watch Animal Planet and PBS and witness crows talking and using tools and elephants mourning and laying their dead in elephant cemeteries and apes being superior mothers and fathers and whales choosing with their big brains, to live in peace. All these animals turn out to have feelings, enjoy pleasure and think.
What have we Big Brains done with our intellectual dominion? Sacrificed our own kind, much less thousands of animal species a week, and on we go, we who know what the sun is—a star, not a god.
Welcome to the Anthropocene, where barbaric human sacrifice still thrives in the age of enlightenment, in which humans drive so many extinctions (not to mention themselves) that life will not be worth living, where megastorms are the norm, coral reefs are memory, starvation wipes out millions of us and our great grandchildren will read about trees in books and go to museums to see embalmed trees. We did this, entombed breathing Earth. We knew better. Earth was an experiment. Whales coexisted while we poisoned ourselves. Who is smarter? What is smart?
But . . . we have a solution: Outer Space.
And God, feet on the heavenly ottoman, eats a bowl of popcorn and shakes Its head at the Big Brained People, and whale watches. “Consider the lilies of the field.” We did, and then we built a mall in the field and more malls in more fields and, in the last days, tore down the national parks and the mountains.
Fuck the flowers. Full speed ahead.