In a touching Japanese movie called “After Life,” people who have died file through a drab processing center. Before they can move on into the next world, they must choose a single experience from their lives which will be the only memory they are allowed to take with them. Mine would be a September evening in a great Kansas marsh, 20,000 acres of water, thick wet earth, cattails and sky where I walked into a cloud of swallows. Barn swallows, bank swallows, cliff swallows — thousands of glittering little birds brushing my hair with their beating wings. For a moment, I was one of them, enveloped in their whirling life force as they prepared for their great fall journey to the south. I was simply one more being, a very small part of something urgent, enormous and timeless.
To believe is to put confidence in something — to accept it as reliable. Human history carries terrible scars of misguided belief and misplaced confidence. It may seem odd in the wake of the world’s recent natural catastrophes, but I can place my confidence only in the planet.
I believe in a system refined over billions of years of trial and error, subject to laws of physics and mechanics. It is observable, measurable and, yes, predictable. It can seem capricious and inexplicable, but that’s because we don’t understand the whole picture.
I don’t know much at all about geophysics, and only a bit more about ecology and biology. But I understand about the slow grind of tectonic plates, with pressure relieved exactly as necessary by explosions of force. I stand witness to a process that has evolved ostriches and hummingbirds, each occupying its own special niche in the world. Life in all its forms thrives where conditions are right; it withers and dies when they are not. All living things owe their existence to an immaculate balance of gravity and mass and energy and chemical elements that allowed it to begin and to continue.
It is impersonal. It is amoral. It is unconscious. Relentless and overwhelming in its grandeur, power and complexity, it commands my belief with its simple presence, and my confidence that it will roll on with or without me. I find that comforting.
We do terrible things to the earth: poison it, rip it open, pave it over. We build our little dirt walls, straddle our houses across fault lines and tinker with amino acids. Then the planet conjures up another storm, an earthquake or a new virus, and we are humbled all over again.
I believe we must understand this and accept that we are not above or outside this system. We must learn its laws and our own vulnerabilities and live within them. So I try to live gently there. I camp in a tent. I hike. I watch and name birds. I recycle. I use energy-saving lights and I turn them off. We can use our unique ingenuity to fit our little individual lives into that of the planet — the only one we have. I believe in its illimitable power and majesty, and in the privilege of standing amid a storm of southbound swallows.