On sunsets and prairies


The following is my response to a YouTube video by John Green, author of Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars and one of the Vlogbrothers. The video is Civil Twilight. You should watch that first, then come back.

You’re very right when you say that there is little that is more mundane than a sunset. Indeed what could possibly be a more everyday occurrence except maybe a sunrise. As someone who has spent a good portion of your life on the American prairie, maybe you’ve also noticed what I have about the great expanses between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Having grown up in the Black Hills, I got into the habit of disparaging the Great Plains as boring, featureless, and yes, mundane. A college recruiter once alluded to a feeling that the only thing keeping you from seeing the ocean was bad eyesight.

More recently I’ve had occasion–many occasions actually–to drive across these vast expanses between my new home in Texas and my childhood home in the Hills. And now, midway through my 50th year, when I cross the “Great American Desert” I am struck by the size of things. On these rolling waves of earth I once dismissed as flat, I can perceive somehow the whole earth. I can imagine myself crawling along its surface, a thin layer of solid rock resting on a mostly molten ball of magma, under a thin layer of air protecting me from a huge-beyond-imagining of empty expanse that makes the landscape in front of me look positively dense. I crawl along embedded in an even thinner sheen of life on the surface of this planet we call home. And yes, in one sense it makes me feel small but I can also perceive that I am an integral part of something much bigger than myself. It is as if a single one of my liver cells could know that it is contributing, in some small way, to the things I write, the thoughts I think, the work that I do. As I pass the grasses and trees, skunks and porcupines with the sky above, the earth below and wonder about their interactions and the impact of my passing, I can feel my part in this grand experiment of the Universe getting to know itself.

Sure, I personally am not running the Large Hadron Collider, or dreaming up the next deep space probe or plumbing the depths or reacting elements looking for new compounds. I am absorbing the fruits of these labors, making backup copies of a small part of human knowledge. And my day job doesn’t directly make the world a better place, but it definitely enables it, from the scale of individual people to national policy. I am a part of the solution, however small that part might be.

It IS easy to dismiss the mundane even that which is so beautiful as a sunset. How much easier to dismiss that which is so abundant as to occupy a huge proportion of this land we call The United States. It’s so easy that we similarly apply it in cultural and political terms. We speak of coastal elites and flyover country and the disregard that each has for the other. We even take it to the extreme of branding each other not only as ignorant, but even actively evil when our only real difference is that we disagree about means to an end. And people who have been corrupted by their desire for power try to use those differences to pit us against ourselves so that they can remain in power. We need to remember that we are all in this together. We all want the best for this country. We are all part of this experiment in government of the people, by the people, for the people that has been going on for 241 years now. On this Fourth of July, we need to remember that each of us is connected to all of us, that we are all a part of a greater whole. And that our place in this system is to know ourselves, work for each other, build our nation into a family, build our understanding of the cosmos, and yes, enjoy the sunsets.

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