The Oracle on The Ohio
The wind lashed against the banks of the Ohio River with a sharp, unforgiving cold. The sun was out, and I was bundled in at least three layers of everything. Only my hands and the tips of my ears were exposed, and they had turned numb within seconds. The river seemed personified, teeming with angst and mood. It gushed over the top of a spillway and churned a lionish, muddy azure with speckled caps. The distant railway trestles that absorbed the watery turmoil were either an engineering marvel or a miracle.
The Falls of the Ohio State Park isn’t in Ohio; rather, it's in Indiana. Across the river, Louisville, Kentucky looked like a bitter cold, northern city with a hazy, slate blue skyline and an uncanny silence. It was hard to believe that was really just Kentucky a mile across the river. Not Cincinnati. Not Point Pleasant. Not Pittsburgh. Not because Louisville, Kentucky resembles any of those other more northern cities, but because the cold I felt on the banks of the Ohio had to come from somewhere winter-hardened and upriver.
I was too busy climbing over washed down logs and navigating iced over rocks, though, to notice much of anything except my next footstep. Embedded in the rocks were fossilized remains of leaves and corral and sea life from as far back as 420 million years ago. Our solar system has orbited the galaxy nearly twice since these little critters were swimming around in a shallow sea south of the equator. Hundreds of millions of years had moved the falls to its current location, and every ice age had scrubbed away rock and sediment, finally exposing the buried fossils. Each footfall, each icy rock I touched, connected my body to the little bodies of lifeforms that might as well have come from another world.
I once knew a man who didn’t believe in fossils. He had seen fossils, held them in his hand, learned about their so-called history. But he was a creationist and his world was only six thousand years old – or something like that. This particular man believed Satan created fossils and put them in the ground so people would discover evolution and no longer believe in God.
Why do people believe such things? Mostly, I think, because they were taught that believing otherwise is a sort of intellectual vanity and moral failing. Others have been victims of their own misperceptions about what the bible is. And still others, I believe, have been nettled by curiosity milking authority figures.
But maybe it’s just easier to believe in mythology and folktales than to wrap our minds around the soft tissue of a two-hundred-million-year-old plant that has been turned to stone. How can that possibly be? How can it be that standing on the icy banks of the Ohio River is the same spot that used to be south of the equator? How can it be that the icicles and the bitter cold air – air – will carve boulders into cragged ledges and chipped gravel? How can it be that river water will knock down mountains, erode blocked limestone to grains of sand, and push sediment far out into the ocean basin?
The world is full of wonder and mystery, and we are born asking, “Why?” Children ask the most profound questions. Why is the sky blue? Where did I come from? Why do people get sick? Twinkle, twinkle, little star/ How I wonder what you are!
And the best adults were the children who never stopped asking. Answers guide questions to swelling wonders usurping satisfaction with increasing curiosity, astonishment, and poked at mystery. The best scientist are the ones always wanting more knowledge. And the greatest mystics and faith contemplators know meaning cannot be exhausted: for the depths of God stretch to such an infinity that it can be said that even God cannot know God’s own self fully. And if the mind of God is such a mystery, it must also be said that God’s mind honors our mind with a mystery that we cannot fully appreciate.
When I am out climbing along a river bank, enthralled by fossils, or amazed by the blue tinge of icicles, I imagine Saint Augustine chastising me with his words. “I am lost in wonder when I consider this problem. It bewilders me. Yet men go out and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers, the ocean that encircles the world, or the stars in their courses. But they pay no attention to themselves.”
Consider the marvel of our own existence: The atoms in our bodies were born in the heart of stars and drifted through the vacuum of space for eons and eons before gravity coalesced and spun them into you. And these seven billion-billion-billion atoms are made up of
mostly empty space. There are 20 to 30 trillion red blood cells in the human body. These blood cells only last for 120 days, give or take, so the body makes about 2.5 million new ones each second. And for every cell that is properly called you, there are ten microbes attached to you. Each breath you take has nearly 25 sextillion molecules, about the same number of stars in the universe, and each time you inhale, at least one molecule of Caesar’s last breath goes in your body. Then there’s the brain, of course. How does that work? Who can say? We could talk about chemical reactions, we could talk about dendrites and axons, we could have a machine map the brain and isolate regions into functions. But does that explain why an icy river bank excites me? Can it explain how I feel connected to a little trilobite who swam in a shallow sea hundreds of millions of years ago? Maybe the answer is yes. And maybe Satan really did put fossils in the ground because that would be easier to believe than the transcendent quality of love and passion.
Surely wonder and awe go beyond physics and chemistry and biology. We will one day be able to say what the inside of a black hole looks like. We will one day be able to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics. One day dark energy and dark matter will be taught in grade school. And one day we will have a telescope that can identify continents and oceans on a planet orbiting a star over hundred light years away. But will we ever truly accomplish the task give to us by the Oracle of Delphi? Know Thyself.
The sun set over Louisville, Kentucky and the temperature plummeted. My had wife told me she read in a newspaper or an online article that it was warmer on the planet Mars than it was in North America. Standing on the walking bridge connecting Kentucky with Indiana, it wasn’t hard to believe. It wasn’t hard to believe that this was as cold as cold can get. I know that isn’t true, of course, but maybe it is true that that the cold I felt on the bridge was as cold as I could get.
No one was on the bridge. It stretched on and on, out of sight. The decorative lights changed from blue to red to orange. A brightly lit boat steamed down river turning into a smear of colors on a long exposure. The wind had calmed and all that was left was the absence of heat and sound.
Just as the bridge connects one side of the river with the other, the bridge between body and soul is a never-ending journey. And just as we worship a bodied God, the greatest exploration is ourselves. "For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you."
I remembered a poem by Anna Kamieǹska:
I don’t know how a day flew by us
I don’t know how life flew by us
and closed with a word
like a lake with ice
winter passed snows melted
the sun appeared and saw
after the winter
that scar on the earth
A good poem, I think, means on thing one day and another thing the next day. A good poem, like a curious person, finds new meaning, new connections without end. Each day seems to tick by and life will come to an end. The difference between the trilobite in my hand and the life within me is the difference between a day flown by and a day flying by.
My life and your life and the life of the horn corral fossil are meaningful only in as much as they are connected. Our existence is constantly on that bridge that has snowy, ice carved rocks on one side and that mysterious otherness just out of sight. The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates explained at his trial. And they killed him for it because the spiritual life wants our bodies and souls, wants to connect our bodies to our souls; the spiritual life wants everything. If I didn’t find some hint of that connection between body and soul on the banks of an ice-cold river, maybe I never really went there.
**The fossils pictured here were not taken from The Falls of the Ohio, as that would be illegal! Instead, I did what any good tourist would do. I bought them from the gift shop.**
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