Archive for the ‘Wyoming’ Category

Chaos Theory, Doctor Who, and Fossil Butte

American history is a fascinating subject. It’s a study of events triggering other events which trigger further events. It’s a study of choices made, or choices not made, or choices poorly made. It’s a study of unrelated decisions converging a hundred years later and meeting up under odd circumstances to form a result that we now take totally for granted. It’s chaos theory, really. Some events, some choices, lead to predictable results, but every now and then, there’s a chunk of randomity, a bit of chaos, that throws things a bit askew.

History buffs, especially rank amateurs such as myself, love to play little “what if” scenarios. What if Ben Franklin suffered a heart attack while securing French support for the Revolution? What if Texas wanted to stay an independent republic? What if Lincoln sued for peace after Secession? What if oil was never discovered in Pennsylvania? What if we stayed with the gold standard? What if Oswald’s shot from the Texas Schoolbook Repository missed? What if 538 people in Florida voted differently in 2000? If these things happened differently than they did, would we still be America?

This is an interesting question. Would we still be America? Various events, going differently than we know them, would that still result in an America? I would have to say … yes. Probably. There was a cause, and a desire, and it sort of propelled things along. Sure, things would be different, but it’d probably still be America. Maybe smaller, maybe bigger, maybe more free, maybe less, maybe Hispanic, maybe without a slave legacy, maybe a 3rd world country, maybe a militaristic tyrant. Who knows?

I’m babbling about all of this for two reasons. One, I’m writing this during Doctor Who commercial breaks, and that show always makes me think of things like this. Two, thinking about Fossil Butte National Monument, a site in southwestern Wyoming preserving fossils up to 65 million years old, makes me think about the concept known as Intelligent Design.

Intelligent Design is the notion that the human race – intelligent, spiritual, thoughtful, opposable-thumbed individuals that we are – is so rare, so special, and required so many remarkable and special circumstances to develop, that it is impossible to conceive that our existence is the random result of various chaotic happenstances since the Big Bang. There must be some driving force, some incredible, thoughtful, magnificent presence, guiding all of creation to develop humanity to this point. Our existence is the result of this Presence, this Guidance, this Grand Design. We have to be the result of none other than God’s Grand Intelligent Design.

Now there’s a great deal of compelling evidence to believe this is indeed true. The Earth is at the right distance from the sun: too close and we’d cook, too far and we’d freeze. The Earth is the right size: too small and gravity couldn’t hold an atmosphere, and too large we’d gather too much atmosphere and be crushed by the pressure. The moon is a factor: the tides cause the oceans to move, improving oxygen absorption and enabling terrestrial life to form in the watery/airy boundary between low tide and high tide. Without the moon, terrestrial life, including humans, wouldn’t exist.

All sorts of changes, small changes in the cosmic scheme of things, would drastically change the way life evolved on the planet. If we were closer to the galactic core, radiation levels would be too high. If we didn’t have Jupiter, Earth would be constantly pulverized by comets. If we didn’t have plate tectonics and volcanoes, plants might not have enough carbon dioxide to thrive. If we didn’t have the properly sized asteroid hit the planet 65 million years ago, mammals would never have risen in dominance, and man wouldn’t exist.

So many incidents, so many requirements, so many little intricacies were required to evolve a species as complex and intelligent as Man. Truly amazing. We’re talking one chance in a billion billions. Mathematically, it seems unbelievable. There’s no way one can say this was all “random”.

Or is there?

The problem with intelligent design is it looks at the problem in reverse. It looks at the result and sees only one possible formula. It’s mathematics, but one-way mathematics. You’re told “here is the answer, now come up with the problem”. Looking at it that way, there is only one answer: someone must have designed us that way. But life is not a math problem. You can’t look at it in one direction only (that’s how we got the Earth-centrist nonsense Copernicus fought 500 years ago). To externalize yourself, and thereby approach and solve problems like this, requires that special power mankind has: imagination.

Imagination moves us beyond math problems and into a realm that allows us to see other paths, other alternatives, other outcomes. We arrogantly presume Humanity is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but there are other answers. Can it be proven that a planet without a moon and its tides can’t develop life? Maybe it wouldn’t be our life, but it would be life nonetheless. Can it be proven that dinosaurs with enough evolutionary freedom couldn’t have grown to be intelligent themselves? 65 millions years is a long time.

Even the very chemistry of our bodies doesn’t limit life. The blood of the horseshoe crab is based on copper, not iron. What if man was copper-blooded? There are forms of life in the ocean that exist purely on chemical and heat reactions from deep, undersea volcanoes. Could life exist on planets far from their sun? Maybe intelligent life could even form on gas giants given the right conditions.

The point I’m trying to make is this: mankind exists on this planet because the circumstances of this world, like numbers and operands in a specific math problem, can yield only one result: the advancement of mankind as the dominant species of the planet. But there are billions of other possible circumstances in this great, wide universe of ours. It’s entirely possible, I’d actually say it’s guaranteed, that there are other acceptable outcomes. It’s entirely possible there are other intelligent life forms out there, each unique and amazing and wholly suited to their own numbers, their own operands, their own planets.

None of this precludes the possibility that there is a Creator deserving of our honor, respect, and love. When I think of Intelligent Design, I don’t think of it as an argument regarding the existence of a Supreme Being. I see it as a symptom of the most dangerous and limiting emotion that mankind can ever have. I see it as arrogance. It is an arrogant proposition that we are the only beings to be valued, that we are the only ones deserving of a God. I see it stemming from the same arrogance that says we are the center of the universe, that we are the most powerful nation in the country, that our race is the only one worthy of prosperity and justice, that our party is the only one who deserves to be in power, and that we are the only ones who can run red lights whenever we want or that we are allowed to be pushy in grocery stores.

Arrogance, otherwise known as pride, is one of the seven deadly sins for a reason. Intelligent Design is a symptom of that sin. People need humility, and consideration of all the possibilities of the big, broad universe can give us that humility.

[All pictures on this post are mine and thusly copyrighted. Please do not reuse without my permission. I don’t have too many more Fossil Butte pics, but you can still visit my similarly-copyrighted Photobucket page.]



Fossil Butte National Monument

Counterview to my post: Probability, Statistics, Evolution and Intelligent Design

The Doctor Who Wiki

Google map to Fossil Butte

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Peace, Quiet and Thought

I’ve said this before, but I love visiting the Great Plains. There’s something about the vast open spaces, the capacity to see for miles and miles, that frees my mind from the cluttered inanity of the world. Having a broad field of vision in the physical world leads to having a broad field of vision in the metaphysical world. OK, fine, that last sentence was a bit over the top. I’m just fishing for fancy ways of saying “open spaces make me feel better”.

New England, much as I love it, tends to be a bit claustrophobic. The hills, mountains and forests restricts field of vision; the constant clamor of a high population density clutters the mind with noise. There ends up being so much noise, so much distraction, it’s hard to stay focused on a task, think through life’s bigger challenges, or simply sit and listen and appreciate a moment in time. Clarity and depth of thought requires personal space and lots of it; the lack of such space clutters the mind like the spare room of a chronic hoarder.

Eastern Wyoming (where Fort Laramie sits) is vast, open, and sparsely populated. It’s so easy to find peace and quiet, to be alone with one’s thoughts. This lends itself to observation, contemplation, and (yes, I’ll say it) spiritual reflection. Even the chronic prevailing winds of the western plains assist. A good, stiff wind in your face cleanses the soul like a sand-blaster cleans painted brick. Wide open spaces and weather: these are a few of my favorite things.

Add in historic Fort Laramie, with its crumbling brick facades, you find yourself reflecting on the past. Like most historic sites west of the Mississippi, Fort Laramie is part and parcel of Native American history, in this case the history of Indian suppression. A visit there makes one specifically reflect on that part of America’s past.

I feel like I could type forever, spewing forth my thoughts about the tragic conflict between the tribes of the Americas and the white settlers. I’d make a blog post so massive and unreadable it’d go down in the annals of bad web content forever. Instead, let me just give a short list of some observations I made at Fort Laramie and similar sites across the country:

  • Did you ever notice that great swaths of the Plains cleared of Indians by the U.S. Army are still pretty empty?
  • Did you notice that people are actually moving out of rural areas in the midwest? Depopulation of the plains has been going on for some time now.
  • Did you know that much of the land taken from tribes was given to cattle ranching? Did you notice that overconsumption of beef is now deemed a health hazard, and current factory-style, corn-fed beef production is considered bad for the environment?
  • Did you notice that family farms, another beneficiary of U.S. Indian relocation policies, are dying out and being replaced by corporate farming concerns that no one seems to like?
  • Have you noticed that California, the “promised land” for wagon trains and railroads, is, well, kind of a mess right now?

It’s been well over a hundred years since the government’s longstanding programs effectively nullified the Indians as a resistance movement and nearly eradicated tribal culture completely. But now, after all this time, I think the question needs to be asked: was it really worth the price?

Playing “what if” games is rarely productive. Nothing can undo what was done, and Monday-morning quarterbacking has as much value as Monopoly money. But maybe, hopefully, we can take the lessons we learned and teach them to others who sit along a similar precipice we sat upon in our expansionist phase. You don’t need to extinguish a competing culture or civilization to succeed and grow. In fact, it’s quite likely it leads to an opposite result.

[The pictures on this blog entry are mine and copyrighted thusly. More are here.]



Fort Laramie National Historic Site

Change of Heartland: The Great Plains

Holy Cow: The Wide Impact of Eating Red Meat

Google map to Fort Laramie

Just for the heck of it, I added a picture of a bunny….

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G, A, F, (octave lower) F, C? B flat, C, A flat, (octave lower) A flat, E flat!!

In 1977, I was twelve years old, smack-dab right in the middle of the target audience for a blockbuster movie. A movie about two people whose mundane lives are interrupted by visitations from extraterrestrial beings and the government conspiracy to cover it up. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a huge experience for me back then. Mega-huge!!! I was all over those ads with the bright light at the end of the deserted highway. “Close encounters of the first kind: visual sighting. Close encounters of the second kind: physical evidence. Close encounters of the third kind: CONTACT!”.

Close Encounters Poster © 1977 Columbia Pictures

Oof, cue the chills down the spine! The posters, the collectible cards, all that sweet, sweet geeky goodness. Ambrosia! It’s almost as if Steven Spielberg woke up one morning and said “Hmmm, I think I’ll write a movie that’ll appeal to that scrawny kid with the Coke-bottle glasses from Western Massachusetts.”  I was all over that film like stink on roadkill. A couple of years later, we were one of the first houses in town to get cable TV, and my dad bought all the pay channels. I watched Close Encounters 18 times in one month, and was damned proud of myself for it!

You can be damned sure that visiting Devils Tower (no apostrophe, contrary to popular belief) was high on my list of must-see sites in the National Park Service. And when I rounded that corner of State Highway 14 and saw that great monolith sticking out of the low eastern Wyoming hills, I was as giddy as a 12-year-old boy in a movie line the night of the big premier (after months of soaking in shameless & targetted Hollywood promotion). I’m actually glad I was alone, I could just revel in the giddiness without apologizing to anyone. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it was a pure geek fantasy come to life, and I was enjoying every rapturous moment of it!!

Tower and Clouds © 2009 America In Context

Devils Tower is truly a wonder to behold, even if you’re not into movies. It’s an enourmous volcanic extrusion that not only towers above the surrounding countryside but seems so alien to that landscape. It looks like it doesn’t belong, it’s like those Sesame Street clips: “one of these things is not like the other ones…” It’s almost as if those extraterrestrials placed it here millions of years ago as a signpost: “Gateway to the Stars — Free Anal Probes to the First 10,000 customers.”

A Shadow Passes © 2009 America In ContextIt’s easy to see how mankind has marvelled at it since the Bering Land Bridge first allowed humans to cross into North America. It’s held special significance to Native Americans for hundreds of years. The Cheyenne, the Arapaho, the Lakota Sioux, the Eastern Shoshone, and many other plains tribes revered the spot, and gave it names such as “Bear’s Lodge”, “Tree Rock”, and “Mythic Owl Mountain”. To this day, their descendants return to Bear Lodge for ceremonies and to tie prayer offerings to the trees.

Later, when European settlers and their descendents crisscrossed the west looking for furs, or gold, or a path to the Pacific, they gave it the dramatic name “Devils Tower”, and eventually the greatest environmental president, Teddy Roosevelt, signed the law protecting it as America’s first National Monument. How could you not?? To this day, I have yet to see a natural wonder of such singular, unique stature in the United States.

rock-scrambleNowadays, people think of Devils Tower and think of Spielberg’s film, and I guess that’s OK too. A nation’s culture is defined by its arts, and in America’s case, our arts is really defined by our films. So I’m cool with the fact that this great wonder of nature has been immortalized by a blockbuster movie and not by the simple fact that it’s so fascinating.

Of course, some people can’t separate film from reality: when I came back to tell folks of my visit, a lot of people asked “did you see any aliens when you were there?” Um, well, no, that was a movie. But I did dream up a sequel to Close Encounters called Close Encounters: The Return, wherein the extraterrestrials come back to Earth and return Richard Dreyfuss. “Please, take him back. His liberal politics and sappy, pedantic movies are ruining our culture!”

I don’t see that appealing to any 12-year-old kids.

Departure © 2009 America In Context

[All photos, except the Close Encouters poster, are mine and thusly copyrighted. Please do not use without my permission. More of my Devils Tower pics are here.]



Devils Tower National Monument

Close Encounters of the Third Kind on IMDB

Lakota Archives: Bear Mountain

Google map to Devils Tower

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