Fall colors in western North Carolina, our bodies, and immortality
by Rob Tiller
Last week I was in western NC for a nature photography workshop, where I shot colorful forests, mountain streams, waterfalls, and elk. The workshop was based near Brevard and led by Chas Glatzer, a superb wildlife photographer and inspiring teacher. He helped me in technical matters, like exposure calculation and white balance, and made me work harder on composition.
He also got our group out to some lovely spots for the fall colors, which were near their peak. Trying to find some new perspectives, I sustained some minor discomfort — sprayed by waterfalls, slipping into streams, and kneeling on hard wet rocks. I was sore when we finished, but pleased with some of the results, including those here.
But to give credit where credit is due: the main creative work was nature’s. Nature is a great artist — endlessly surprising. Opening up to it can transform us. We usually view ourselves as separate from and superior to it, but that’s a costly mistake. We wreak a lot of havoc, and miss a lot of joy.
On the drive out and back I listened to Bill Bryson’s new book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants. It’s an entertaining and thought-provoking compendium of what we know so far about how human bodies work. Bryson clearly loves science. He covers a lot of ground, dividing it by body parts (hair, skin, eyes, ears, nose, throat, and on through the brain and the more obscure organs, like the pancreas) and systems, and straightens out a lot of widely held erroneous notions along the way. He keeps things lively with accounts of great discoveries and oddities as he updates what we learned a little about in high school biology.
Along the way, he corrects a major misunderstanding: that we pretty much control our own bodies. So much of the body’s essential work is completely beyond our conscious control (e.g. the circulatory system, the digestive system, the immune system, the endocrine system). Indeed, the conscious part of our lives is a relatively minor part of what’s happening with us. If our staying alive depended on our consciously running our bodies, we wouldn’t survive very long.
As Bryson makes clear, there’s a lot science can’t yet explain about human bodies. But it was fun and helpful to get an overview of current knowledge. Bryson helps us see ourselves differently — not as separate from nature, but as fundamentally part of it.
I also finished reading Immortality, The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization, by Stephen Cave. Cave, a philosopher, diplomat, and writer, contends that, even as we recognize the high probability we will eventually die, we are constitutionally unable to imagine our own deaths. This paradox makes us susceptible to various bogus theories of how we can attain never-ending life.
This is not entirely a bad thing, in Cave’s view, since it accounts for much of what we regard as civilization and progress. But trying to imagine a life that’s eternal — being more or less the same not only for millions, or billions, or trillions of years, but more than all that — is almost as disturbing as imagining death. It would eventually get so boring!
Cave points out that our mortality is actually the source of value and meaning in life. Plus, as he notes, assuming death is real (as it sure looks like it is), we won’t actually be present to experience it — we’ll be dead. So what are we afraid of? I wasn’t entirely persuaded by his system of four different immortality templates to explain every civilization, but I did find the book stimulating and oddly cheering.