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Herb Rothschild Jr.: A meditation before Easter

We’re fairly sure that one of our primate ancestors moved out of the forests in Africa onto open terrain some 5 million to 7 million years ago. That transition was critical to the evolution of humankind. If primates had stayed in trees, none of them would have developed bi-pedalism and upright posture. But something else happened, something about which I’ve run across no discussion. For the first time, the entire night sky continually lay open to them.

Absent atmospheric pollution, the unaided eye can distinguish about 8,000 stars, although we can see only half of them from each hemisphere. It’s a sight that a dwindling minority of human beings ever experiences. There are few places left where pollution — mainly light pollution — doesn’t drastically reduce the visibility of all the celestial bodies. As a city boy, I was stunned when I finally saw the floor of heaven inlaid with stars.

What’s the effect of our no longer living with the daily experience of a vast realm above our own? Asking that question is akin to imagining what it meant to our evolutionary ancestors when they first experienced the night sky. Speculation aside, we know that the heavens have been a major component of the worlds that peoples in recorded history have constructed for themselves.

It’s doubtful that any animals except humans have worlds, meaning coherent and inclusive arrangements of “reality.” Rather, animals have environments. Environments are givens. Animals live in them and make physical changes to them (a beaver’s dam, a rodent’s burrow) as they adapt. Worlds are mental constructs for which humans use elements of the environment as building blocks. Within worlds, environments aren’t just physical realities to be dealt with practically. They become locations of meaning: a mountain is the portal between the divine and human realms; a river can cleanse the polluted spirit.

I doubt if the heavens enter into non-human consciousness. Climate does — that’s environment. Daylight and darkness do — they, too, are environment. But not the Milky Way, not the Pleiades. Wolves don’t really howl at the moon; they point their heads toward the sky so their voices will carry farther. Humans howl at the moon.

It pleases me to imagine that our distinctiveness dawned when, after eons of inattention, about 300,000 years ago our ancestors were struck by the wonder of the heavens. And then they did the only thing they could do with what induced their wonder — they told stories about it. Eventually those stories became the myths that created their worlds.

The culture you and I inhabit doesn’t offer us a world and the associated rituals that allow us to align our lives with it. Instead, our “world views” are merely fragments of perception and personal experience and received opinion that we’ve cobbled together and believe will sustain us.

In its way our condition is honest. The worlds that cultures have constructed are largely self-imprisoning artifices. But in our culture it takes unusual effort to thrive spiritually. One possibility is to try to dwell in the aboriginal wonder, resisting all temptation to mythologize it. Another is to accept the core truth of our only enduring myth — our uprooting from an embedded state into abiding alienation — and then endure that condition with courage and love. “They looking back ... / Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon; / The world was all before them, where to choose / Their rest ... / They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way.”

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.