The Lion, The Gorilla, and The Bear

Adam told me there was a lion in my bedroom. A lion, he said, a gorilla, and a bear. Even if I couldn't see them, the fear in his three-year-old eyes confirmed that they were there.

So I took the lion, the gorilla, and the bear by the hand and led them outside.

Sometimes, when we can see nothing, much is there to be seen. Looking at the night sky we may find only some few stars. Yet the Hubble Ultra Deep Field has shown us that we are looking out at ten thousand galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Beyond them there may be as many as one hundred billion galaxies in the universe, if we only were able to see.

For centuries, the snow-laden cliffs of Kathmandu seemed to hold nothing but ice, dust and clouds. Yet one day recently a shepherd took shelter from gale-force winds, among a complex of crumbling rock caves, and stumbled upon a treasure of twelfth century relics. Sitting perilously atop towering cliffs were six-hundred-year-old human remains, shards from the Bon religion, which preceded Buddhism, Tibetan manuscripts in gold, silver, and ink, paintings, and even a fifty-five foot mural depicting the life of the Buddha. To view these, you have to travel 160 miles north-west of Kathmandu in the Nepalese kingdom of Upper Mustang, up a fourteen thousand foot rock face, bringing with you some sturdy 21st century climbing equipment and fighting the resistance of the local populace. The geography, as it is described, reminds me of D. H. Lawrence's “Dream of Fear: the world went cold, and snow fell everywhere, and only white creatures, polar-bears, white foxes and men like awful white snow-birds, persisted in ice cruelty.” Robert Frost, you will recall, wrote of ice in these chilling words:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I've tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

is also great

And would suffice.

Time loses all substance in the face of discoveries like these, both Hubble's infinitely-unfolding galaxies and Kathmandu's hidden archives. We stretch so much further than our minds can envision. We try to capture fragments of who we are so that those yet-to-be will understand who we were.

I am reminded of Edith Wharton's description of a museum (in fact, I think it was the Metropolitan Museum in New York City): “Its glass shelves were crowded with small broken objects – hardly recognizable domestic utensils, ornaments, and personal trifles – made of glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time-blurred substances. It seems cruel...that after a while nothing matters, any more than these little things that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labeled 'Use Unknown'”.

Will humans one day be labeled, “Use Unknown”? Discontinued genetic castaways, made of “time-blurred substances”? In 3009, what will be understood of thee, and me, and we? Who will comprehend things like iPods, microwaves, can openers, and Nintendos? What will the future make of phrases like Who's your Daddy?, Rainbow Coalition, and Madonna Wannabe? At this season of reflection and renewal, sometimes understanding it all seems as remote as Kathmandu's caves and Hubble's infinities of galaxies.

When these questions seem overwhelming, it helps to listen once again to D. H. Lawrence: “Whatever the mystery which has brought forth man and the universe, it is a non-human mystery. It has its own great ends. God can do without man. God could do without the ichthyosauri and the mastodon....The mystery of creation (is) fathomless, infallible, inexhaustible, forever. Races came and went, species passed away, but ever new species arose, more lovely or equally lovely, always surpassing wonder.”

Is there a mastodon, an ichthyosaurus, a sheer glacial cliff staring at you somewhere, threatening your equilibrium? Take them by the hand and lead them outside with the lion, the gorilla and the bear. DeFrost the poet: perhaps an inevitable golden thread of continuity winds from Kathmandu through you to other galaxies. Maybe that's what Bach's cantatas and Beethoven's concertos are trying to tell us. Maybe it takes the eyes of a three-year-old to understand that there are mysteries beyond our envisionings and beauties beyond our ken.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2009

The quotations come from D. H. Lawrence, "Women in Love", and Edith Wharton, "The Age of Innocence".