Stardust Memories

From: Wikimedia commons.

Last month, for the first time I witnessed a total solar eclipse. It was an experience I can only characterize as spiritual.

We live in a culture that has long characterized God as some large human-like being existing somewhere on high. But if anything in the real world is God-like, it is the sun.

Just about everything about us is dependent on the sun. All of the energy that went into the intricate construction of our bodies from a tiny fertilized egg to our adult self came from the sun. All the energy we use to move our bodies, the energy to digest our food, the energy that goes into each beat of our heart, is solar. The warmth of the day and the warmth of our bodies is solar. 

How dependable this sun has burned through roughly 5 billion years, providing enough time for the splendid chemistry of this earth to evolve; enough time the incredible genetic plan that resides in each of us to evolve; the plan that guides matter and solar energy through the intricate construction of our bodies from tiny fertilized eggs to our adult selves.

Our sun is not responsible for that chemistry, but some previous sun, or suns, is. Every element of our body, except hydrogen, was manufactured by those earlier suns. As Joni Mitchel worded it in her song, “Woodstock,” we are stardust. 

The element iron, and all those elements lighter than iron, were probably created by regular solar fusion, but the manufacturing of those heavier than iron required something hotter and more powerful. Those required the unthinkable energy of a supernova. 

One of those elements is uranium. Thanks to uranium, the core of our earth is constantly heated. That heat drives plate tectonics. So, in a certain sense, this heat also is a kind of solar heat, being derived from a solar nova. 

At a superficial level we can thank plate tectonics for providing the earth with such an incredible variety of landscapes. At a deeper level, we can thank plate tectonics for our being here to witness those landscapes. I think the importance of plate tectonics as a dynamic force driving biological evolution, is not yet well enough appreciated. Without it, the planetary evolution of the earth would have stopped long ago, and biological evolution would likely have stalled along with it.

Although I find something a bit silly in the belief in a human-like God, I think it is a very human response to the world. It is hard to feel much warmth in the abstractions through which we understand planetary and biological evolution. It is easier to feel warmth, even love for something with a human face. 

But during the four minutes of total solar eclipse, I felt something that the primitive worshiper of the sun might have felt. A pure, unnamable feeling that cut through all abstractions.

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