What follows are philosophical meanderings inspired by this image from last month’s Grand Canyon workshops. Rather than repeat myself, if you want to read about this electric evening, read my recent My Favorite Things post.
One of the things I love about a still image is the opportunity to gaze and ponder the scene at my own pace. And pondering this image, it suddenly occured to me that some people might label Nature lazy, because: It never has a plan, does everything the easiest way possible, and really doesn’t care how long anything takes. And humans who are driven to control, contain, manage and in other ways “organize” the natural world (often with disastrous results), are admired. What’s wrong with this picture?
As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing lazy and disorganized about Nature. If anything, Nature is inherently ordered. In fact, in the grand scheme, “Nature” and “order” are synonyms. But humans go to such lengths to dominate the natural world, we’ve created a label for failure to control Nature: Chaos. Ironically, what humans perceive as “chaos” is actually just a manifestation of the universe’s inexorable push toward natural order—the very opposite of chaos.
Imagine, for example, that all humans blast-off from Earth on a scenic tour of the Milky Way. While we’re gone, no lawns are mowed, no buildings maintained, no fires extinguished, no floods controlled, no Starbucks built. Let’s say we return in 100 Earth years*. While the state of things would no doubt be perceived as chaotic, the reality is that our planet would in fact be closer to its natural state. And the longer we’re away, the more human-imposed “order” would be replaced by natural order.
* Since this is my fantasy, I’ve chartered a spaceship that accommodates all of humankind and travels at 90 percent of the speed of light. While Earth has indeed aged 100 years during our holiday, we travelers return only a year older. (Dubious? Don’t take my word for it, ask Albert Einstein.)
Natural order is the inexorable quest for equilibrium. But rather than being lazy, I say that Nature is simply the embodiment of the sage advice to, “Follow the path of least resistance”—whether that means achieving natural order in microseconds, or plodding away for billions of years (and counting).
And what better illustration of both extremes than a lightning bolt at the Grand Canyon?
I’ll start with the Grand Canyon part. The first layers of exposed Grand Canyon sediment formed nearly 2 billion years ago. Subsequent layers were deposited in fits and starts that involved multiple oceans, mountain ranges, deserts, and no doubt many other ecosystems. These layers, each a manifestation of conditions at the time of their formation, are separated by millions of years of uplift or erosion, gaps for which we have no direct record. (To the skeptics who question how multiple oceans and mountain ranges could have formed and disappeared in less than half of Earth’s life, here’s a reality check: at a rate of just 1 inch of change (uplift, deposition, erosion) per century, 2 billion years is long enough for Mount Everest (5 1/2 miles higher than sea level) to rise from sea level, and erode back down to sea level, 29 times. So yeah, plenty of time.)
At the bottom of all these geological machinations is the Colorado River. A late arrival to the show, the Colorado started knifing through the accumulated 2 billion years of geologic history about 5 million years ago—a veritable blink of the Universe’s eye.
Beholden to gravity, water flows down, always following the easiest possible path. When a river encounters an obstacle, its first response is to go around it. If there’s no viable detour, it pushes to check if the obstacle will move. If that doesn’t work, the water just waits, accumulating reinforcements and pushing progressively harder as it deepens. Eventually, one of two things happens: the water flows over the top, or the barrier gives way. And as it flows, the river rubs away particles of rock, from microscopic to large boulders, and carries them downstream.
The Colorado River and its surroundings are still at work, with no end in sight. A lightning bolt, on the other hand, though bound by the same laws of Nature as the river, in its quest for equilibrium comes and goes faster than a single beat of the heart.
In a thunderstorm, the up/down flow of atmospheric convection creates turbulence that knocks together airborne water (both raindrops and ice) molecules, stripping their (negatively charged) electrons. Lighter, positively charged molecules are carried upward in the convection’s updrafts, while the heavier negatively charged molecules remain near the bottom of the cloud. Soon the cloud is electrically polarized, with more positively charged molecules at the top than at the base. Nature, in its desire for equilibrium, really, really needs to correct this imbalance as quickly as possible: Flash/bang!
Each bolt and rogue filament follows the path of least resistance through the atmosphere, equalizing the cloud’s charge imbalance so quickly that it’s a memory before the brain registers it.
Because I’m in absolute awe of the natural world, these are the kinds of things I think about when I gaze at an image (really). (I’m not saying I know all this stuff already, but when I don’t know it, before posting an image I research until I have a fair grasp on what’s going on—not because I feel obligated, but because I enjoy it.) And for some reason I just can’t get this path of least resistance thing out of my head, and the way it manifests so consistently, in so many different ways. Perhaps the world would be a better place if we would all just honor and emulate Nature, rather than resist it.
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