Illusions can be entertaining, but what if, suddenly, you realize you are living right inside one? Driving through the thick, green hills that ruffle up just west of my home, I got a glimpse – hiding in plain view – of just such an illusion, one that has haunted me ever since.
I love to drive and to travel, and deserts and wastelands have long enchanted my soul. Why, I wonder, do they so attract me, these lands of limited life and dangerous conditions? Certainly, there is a unique beauty to the sublime emptiness and harsh terrain, but there seems to be a deeper reason. After my recent startling discovery, I’ve concluded that this has to do with a grand illusion – the illusion of the ubiquity of life.
The illusion that now haunts me was revealed by a simple highway road-cut, sliced cleanly through one of the larger rolling hills near my decidedly non-desert home that made me pause. It was a wide slot, carved by man and his explosives to let the hard road through. I had driven through this rock-cut many times, but this day I noticed something about it and it felt like my view of the world had slipped sideways.
Living upon the dry land of this planet, we take as a given the world of life that surrounds us. Green grasses, great forests, flowers of every description, fields of crops, fresh water coursing over moss – all the very stuff of the world as far as we can see. Surely, all of this combined is what we consider our Earth to be truly made of – what defines it as Earth. On the continents, only the rarified deserts and mountaintops are thinned of this great green and living mass. Those are places with enough scarcity that we tend to think of them as exceptions to the mundane majority – accent pieces to the Green World. All this is true enough from our everyday perspective, but it is still a terrible illusion. The highway cut showed it to me plainly.
I saw the green hill as I approached in my car, then I was inside the cut. The Green World was not here. For a moment, it seemed some alien place had peeked out from behind its mask, giving slip perhaps to a false front that nature has arranged for our naïve comfort. This hill, this tiny lump of land, had risen up long ages past and now we humans had cut a slice right through it revealing it brazenly like some giant stony x-ray. Inside the fully green hill was nothing but stone. Of course, of course, but look how thinly the green grass and trees cling to the outer surface! Life on the skin of this simple hill is a vanishingly thin veneer. Underneath is nothing – nothing but stone.
It looked like a baked potato. The white rock here was skinned with a narrow dark green line that followed its every curve. Inside the hill? Nothing but potato meal. What was left of my green life was the extraordinarily thin “peel.” What if that peel was all that kept me alive, all that any of us can ever depend on for our very lives, forever? It made me shudder.
Then, it began to truly sink in. This is just a hill. It is a molecular protrusion – a mere grain on the side of an immense sphere, and that sphere is made up solely of more hill-stuff. Compared to the size of the hill, that green peel of life is gaspingly thin, but what of the ratio of that same green veil’s same thickness when gauged against the size of the entire planet?
I stopped my car and walked up to the spot where the grass shell’s edge met the face of the cut. This blade of grass at my feet and its roots extend some inches down into the soil. That tree descends perhaps several tens of feet. It all gives way in a breath to crusty dense stone that stretches thousands of non-air miles from here to the far foothills of another land’s evening, and there at the last blink, one more faint and incredibly thin curtain of green life clings to the stone face before the void beyond. In between these green ghosts? Only unbroken and ungodly fathoms of dense, unfeeling minerals twirling through the radiant night of space, viscous and fierce at the deepest heart where its own heady mass sits down. Is there red and glowing light at the very core, where no eye can perceive?
Perhaps this is the underlying reason I am attracted to deserts. The wonderful deserts! Where the green skin is worn away like a threadbare dress, revealing the true physical nature of rocky planets like ours, lurking beneath the living skin. Not that I disdain life – not at all! Rather, that it is here that the illusion thins enough to sense the reality of our situation. It is seeing through the illusion that gives me perspective. Life is thin and precious. We live by the benefits of an environment that is truly a soap-bubble skin – one atom thick and easily punctured, even by road workers with dynamite. Does our life-filled world of greenness seem so thick and full to us because we never really look below its broad, but incredibly thin face? Or is it because we ourselves are so amazingly tiny, lost within it? In the desert lands, one can feel the sizes.
The illusion revealed by the highway cut was as if someone had taken life’s movie camera and tilted it down, clean off the green set, revealing the stage hardware and support beams below. This camera, I found, can be tilted up, also.
We’ve all watched a blue sky full of unreachable white clouds and imagined shapes in their fractal forms. To me, as a young child, this cloudsky was a vision into a deep, vast land full of unknown ethereal beings and golden cities that no earthbound human could ever reach. The sky was endless – deeper than any ocean. Surely none of our activities, even flying, could truly penetrate its awesome mysteries. When the first rockets rose to space, I watched in rapt pleasure, sensing even as a small boy that a completely new perspective on things was to be had. I was always intrigued to see pictures of the earth from the high vantage of orbit. One of the most curious views to me was that of the limb of the planet with the sun rising. Curving above the dark planet below was a narrow bright band of light. It was our atmosphere illuminated from behind.
But wait! This couldn’t be the sky I know! This skin of air was so very thin – so thin it looked like a mere hand swipe would splash it all off and make it float away into hard black space. It could not be the true nature of that deep and unknowable sky world that had always fascinated me! Yet, this was our atmosphere – our sky, our clouds, our sunsets, our fresh air after a storm, the very pulsing breaths we consume and that sustain us. So thin?
So, the vast sky above my head was another illusion. The camera had been craned up this time, out of the set, and was looking back down with a cold, real eye.
I once had a pet fish. It swam around in its round bowl, eating its fish food and thinking its fish thoughts. Did it know that the water in which it swam extended only a very short way out from the center? Did it presume, as perhaps I did of the sky, that it must extend great and grand distances because it appears to do so? If I removed it from its bowl, say in a small water-filled plastic bag spaceship, would it have looked back upon its bowl world home and exclaimed, “So small?”
Now, we have extended ourselves out of our bowl and into the hard, waterless universe beyond. We can look back and see that the illusion of the ubiquity of our life-giving environment is comforting but also dangerous. Now, we begin to see how our actions are affecting this incredibly crucial and fragile resource.
We truly live within a thin margin. To see it as limitless and beyond our ability to alter or even to destroy, is to succumb to the illusion – something we can no longer afford.
The stars in space do not twinkle from our high orbital platforms. They shine crisp and cold for we see them there from outside our potato skin of air. As we walk across our gossamer greenswards, we might pause and think of the illusions revealed by a road-cut. As those cold stars call to us, we might also look up and gaze into the forever night, wondering what new worlds might exist in, or perhaps even outside of, our visible universe.
It seems so big.