Becca Deysach lives in Portland, Oregon where she stalks lichen, practices Indonesian Kung Fu, and teaches creative writing and environmental studies for Prescott College and her business, Ibex Studios: Adventures in Creative Writing (www.ibexstudios.com). "Wild from the Inside Out" is excerpted from her book-length work-in-progress tentatively titled Aching Beauty: Coming to Terms with Being Human.
Wild from the Inside Out
I’ve been taking a lot of night hikes lately. I often head out during the fuzzy hour, that time of evening before the black of night when everything loses its color and clarity of edges. Branches of ponderosa pine arching over the trail, rigid canyon walls, and my friend beside me all seep into the air until I can hardly tell where they end and the night begins.
The blurry lines between trees and air may just be one of light's tricks, but for me, they are more. They are a reminder that the boundaries we see between earth and sky, liquid and solid, my skin and yours are just a matter of perception, of a dramatic difference in density. Although the fluid inside each of my skin cells is bound by a membrane, there is a constant and dynamic interplay between my flesh and the air around it. Without intention on my part, electrons fly off me to dance in a charged attraction with the dry night's. I know this electricity is always there, but I feel only after shuffling my stockinged feet on a carpet before touching a doorknob or someone else's skin.
This firing of electrons crackles the air around me the same way it did to my body every time I looked at Adam Johnson's dark eyes during my first years after college. Every day at work, I braced myself against the inevitable heat that rose from my thighs to my face at the sight of him chopping vegetables across the deli table from me. My body tugged with an insistence as real as gravity’s to touch the skin concealed by the butcher's apron hanging off his boy bones, to feel the muscles beneath his skin. No matter how much I willed my body to understand that he was just a young, dumb boy, the wild firing of synapses that is my nervous system responded in its own way, heedless of my mind's desire.
I was equally controlled by the knowledge of my body last week when, driving down Chicago's Lake Shore Drive in rush hour traffic, a semi-truck pulled in front of me. Before I was consciously aware that the hulking vehicle had almost crushed my passenger and me, my foot was on the brake pedal. In that moment, I felt calm. Only after there was an appreciable distance between the truck and my car did I shudder from the river of adrenaline that has saved my life more than once.
Solid gives way to gas, electrons heat us up with constellations of uninvited sparks, and life-saving chemicals bypass our ponderous consciousnesses when there is no time for thought. We are wild from the inside out. No matter how bound by our minds, skin, or cell membranes we may feel, we are each a universe of atoms working together to carry out millions of processes, most of which we are unaware from moment to moment. My heart is beating about sixty times a minute and I probably couldn't will it to stop if I tried. My lungs rise and fall, my diaphragm expands, and the hydrochloric acid and gentle squeezing motion of my stomach turns my breakfast of eggs and potatoes into forms the rest of my body can use. An intricate network of nerves sends messages to my brain, though I am aware of very few: Should I scratch that itch on my nose? Oh, now my armpit itches. Gosh, now that I'm thinking about it, it seems like every part of me tickles—my shoulder, my left breast, my upper arm, my forehead, and now my nose again!
As I scratch my itches, I see the veins beneath the thin skin of my hand spreading like the fingers of a delta toward my wrist. This network of blood vessels is filled with a fluid as wet and salty as the ocean into which a delta spills. Their blue glow reminds me that I am more ocean than Earth, more wet than dry. And yet, just as my smooth skin tricks me into thinking I am separate from the air around me, these channels of blood disguise the truth that I am three-quarters water. My veins barely hint that the ten-thousand-trillion human cells and one-hundred-thousand-trillion bacterial cells my body is made of are really miniature ocean ecosystems that hold inside of them the history of the universe.
Stretched out in the dry sauna heat last night, we waited for the moment our pores loosened up and that primordial story spilled out. Brianna said she could see hers open and, like a spring, ooze water. Hot rocks heated up the cedar space and pushed the molecules in the membranes of our cells far enough apart for tenuously bonded hydrogen and oxygen atoms to stream down our sides, our legs, the space between our breasts. Soon we were drenched from neck to foot, slick with each of our skin cells' primeval sea.
We talked about how crazy it is that over four billion years ago those hydrogen and oxygen atoms first united on this planet in a liquid combination powerful enough to cultivate life. About how together they covered the earth in a scalding sea that nonetheless welcomed carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and all the other ingredients necessary to build the first proteins, cell membranes, and winding ladders of nucleic acids that carry the secrets of one generation to another.
She reminded me that we are alive thanks to the distortions those secrets have gone through in the past four-billion years, and yet there is nothing remarkably different between us and the first blueprint for building a life. Like the DNA molecules in the cells our sweat came from, we are just massive permutations of elements that a symphony of star births created about fourteen-billion years ago.
We imagined what it must have been like during the one-hundred-million years before those stars were born, when the universe was a dark and undifferentiated place filled only with hydrogen, helium, and traces of lithium and beryllium. The same laws of attraction that held us strong to the wooden benches last night brought hydrogen and helium together in a spectacular burst of light all those millions of years ago. Those searing fires were so powerful that they fused atoms together to make enough new elements that galaxies, planets, and we could eventually form.
Dehydrated and delirious with heat, I sang a Joni Mitchell song while Brianna showered herself cool. "We are stardust, billion-year-old carbon." She may be at least twelve billion years off, but other than that, Joni's right. We are stardust, we are fourteen-billion-year-old carbon. And we’re wild with it.
Too hot to take the sauna anymore, I stepped outside in my brown and green-striped towel. The stark night sky that I have seen a thousand times before caught me hard in its gaze. Orion was in the same place it always is in January, the Pleiades tricked my eyes with their usual fuzziness, and I was as slain by their familiar beauty as I am by the people I love the most. What makes something as consistent as the night sky so consistently striking?
Every bit of carbon in my blood, in my bones, and in my brain came from some of those early stars. Perhaps all the elements in me are drawn to the fires that gave them life. Perhaps I am.
As my sweat turned to vapor in the backyard, I had the same thought I've had every time I've looked at the stars since I first learned that distance can be measured by the amount of time it takes for the light of one thing to reach another. I almost never speak that thought aloud because it reminds me of the "deep" conversations I used to have with my stoner boyfriend in college—"Ohmygod, I'm really looking at some of those stars as they were millions of years ago. For all we know, they're not even there anymore. Who knows what the sky really looks like. Dude."
High or not, it is crazy to think that the map of the sky we see is not the one that is there now, but a historical record of the universe and its unfolding. If only we could look deeply enough into the space we're suspended in, we could see the instant of our origin.
Scientists with access to big telescopes can see the background radiation from the moment during which a vast almost-nothingness became the very big something we inhabit, but the darkness of that instant will never reach the earth. No matter how far I stand from the lights of the city, I will never be able to see the quarks, neutrinos, and other impossibly small particles that spilled out of a single point about fourteen billion years ago. I don't have the capacity to grasp the force that pulled protons and neutrons together despite the pace at which the universe pushed into emptiness to create space, itself, all those years ago. All I will ever see from the vantage point of a backyard is a time-warped display of fires caught in the act of creating the kinds of atoms that made us possible.
Every atom in our bones, in our universe, is one of ninety-one naturally occurring combinations of a positively charged nucleus and one or more electrons flying around it billions of times every millionth of a second. You never can say exactly where an electron is at any moment in time, nor predict where it will be in the future, but the patterned clouds of energy it makes around a nucleus shows us it is there. An electron may give form to this basic unit, but an atom is more space than matter—if a hydrogen atom were four miles wide, its nucleus would be the size of a tennis ball. Between the electron defining its outer boundary and the inner nucleus, there is a nothing as empty as interstellar space.
"If every molecule, every body, and every thing on this planet is just a collection of protons, neutrons, and empty spaces bound by the probable presence of negatively charged particles, then what is the difference between my sweat, the Milky Way, and the organism contemplating them?" I asked Brianna before I headed home.
"When you look at it that way," she said as I stepped into the night, "the definition of life slips through your fingers, literally."
What is life? It is a result of the chance event that a cloud of stellar dust formed a planet at just the right distance from the sun to make the seas we came from and that live on in us. Four-and-a-half-billion years ago, earth was just a messy mixture of silicone, iron, magnesium, and a few other elements bound together by oxygen. During its first few million years, frequent asteroid poundings, the power of gravity, lightening storms, and the decay of radioactive elements heated the planet-to-be into a frenzy. By about a billion years after its origin, earth was so hot that its iron melted and sank to the core of the planet. As it slid to the center, the scorching element melted nearly everything in its path, helping to create the multi-layered structure of the modern earth. The hot and viscous world hidden beneath the thin layer of crust on which we live gave our planet volcanoes and plate tectonics. Along with water, the earth's molten core made it a place dynamic enough to engender and sustain a thing as crazy and complex as life.
In a universe the size of something approaching infinity, I shouldn't be surprised that this multi-layered planet coalesced where it did, in just the right spot for the misty skies to condense into ocean once things cooled off. Statistics say it shouldn't amaze me that one of our galaxy's one hundred million stars had a wet, hot, and active planet with all the necessary ingredients to stir up life by four billion years ago. But I can't escape the knowledge that if earth had formed just a little closer to the sun, it never would have become cool enough to make water. Much farther, and it would have been locked up in a perpetual winter, as devoid of biodiversity as the other planets that travel around our sun.
Probable or not, there is magic embedded in earth's perfect position to house the liquid compound that every breathing thing depends upon.
What is life? It is the flash of the firefly in the night. It is the breath
of a buffalo in the winter time; it is the little shadow which runs across
the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
--The dying words of Crowfoot, a Blackfoot hunter
What is the line between the animate and the lifeless, between a firefly and its flash, a buffalo and her breath? What separates a creature from her shadow? What is life? Life is in the flutter of a firefly's wings and in its reaction to a child's attempts at catching it in a glass jar. It is in the sureness of the end of an existence, and in an internal chemical and electrical system complex enough to create the glow of phosphorescence. It is about an organization of living cells that together give shape and movement to a being, and it is the necessary act of energy intake, growth, and metabolism in which an organism spends its days engaged.
Life is two fireflies flirting in the darkness in hopes of passing their genes on to another generation of shimmering insects. It is a firefly in the night fertilizing hundred of eggs with its deepest memories and silent instructions for building a new glowing beetle. And life's secret is contained in that microscopic packet of information first compiled four-billion years ago. Without DNA there would be no firefly, and there would have been no Brianna or me in the sauna last night.
"Isn't it weird," I said somewhere between the first mention of our pores and her insistence that the definition of life is as hazy as an electron's path, "that a strand of DNA may draw a line between the living and the non-living, between a firefly and a fire, but a double-helix made out of carbons, sugars, and base pairs is not, by itself, alive?"
"It depends on your definition of life," Bri replied. She teased me for being such a reductionist, but I maintained that, without a context for the stories it holds, DNA means very little. It needs a membrane to contain it and fluid to float in. It needs a bound environment that takes in and processes energy, that grows and eventually reproduces. Only when it has a liquid home, separate from the environment around it, can DNA make life.
The earliest genetic code probably found the context it needed in tiny suds foaming on the shores of our ancestral seas. Not long after fatty membranes came together in mutual aversion to water, DNA took up residence within them. The sheer variety of beings that have lived on earth are testimony to the genius of that early partnership. Our bodies today are filled with close relatives of those creatures—bacteria that thrived in the hot, oxygen-depleted world and presided over earth for two-billion years.
Unlike sexual organisms, bacteria reproduce simply by making carbon copies of themselves and have little opportunity to change without an outside push to do so. Sometimes, however, bits of DNA are translated incorrectly from one generation to the next. The genetic language misspoken usually produces an offspring too deformed to pass its warped story on to another generation, but altered codes occasionally result in a new bacterium quite capable of navigating its way through the environment and making more of its kind. Bacteria also transform themselves by swapping bits of DNA in an act more akin to kissing than making love.
During life's first two-billion years, these translation errors and one-celled kisses filled the acrid ocean with a range of tiny beings of all shapes and abilities. Some of those hereditary changes eventually led to a bluegreen, or cyano-, bacteria with the ability to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, using the hydrogen it needed for energy and discarding the oxygen into the air. In no time, congregations of these photosynthesizing creatures covered the planet in a slippery film, and we see their descendents today between our shower tiles, floating on ponds, and almost any other place that’s warm, wet, and unscrubbed. Unbeknownst to them, their unique ability to make free oxygen was also a cruel one; the molecule with which they filled the sky was as poisonous to most of their relatives as the early methane, cyanide-, hydrochloric- and sulfuric acid-filled world in which they thrived would have been to us.
After hundreds-of-millions of years of their microscopic exhalations, the cyanobacteria had filled the sky with so much oxygen that other bacteria began dying in droves. Many species vanished forever. Others survived only by finding refuge in the deepest recesses of the ocean, sulfuric hot springs, and other oxygen-free areas. The bluegreen bacteria, however, flourished by turning their waste product into something usable. In the brilliant act of respiration, they used the free oxygen they made through photosynthesis for energy and eventually brought atmospheric oxygen to the levels we breathe today.
What is life? It is the relationship between a storytelling molecule and the membrane that contains it. It is an endless transformation of those stories to help the next generation survive in an ever-shifting landscape.
As saltwater stained the contours of our hips in the sauna last night, the little bodies inside our cells navigated their fluid habitats as their ancestors have for the last two-and-a-half billion years. Lysosomes, golgi complexes, endoplasmic reticula, and mitochondria carried out their different intracellular jobs while Brianna and I pondered the cosmos. And those organelles were as unaware of our words as we were of the conversations they were having with one another and their ecosystems' nucleus.
The cells that comprise you, me, and every multicellular organism are complex in a way that the bacteria living alongside them are not. Unlike bacteria's free floating DNA, ours is protected by a membrane-bound nucleus. The rest of our cellular bodies, or organelles, live in a cytoplasmic sea outside of the cell's command center and work together to carry out instructions from the nucleus. These things make each of our cells more intricate than those of the earliest life forms. However, looking more closely, it appears that our cells are merely finely-tuned collaborations between several of our most common ancestors. Mitochondria is one of those squiggly organelles rolling with the tides inside our cell membranes, and it hints at how specialized cells could have evolved out of such long-term simplicity.
Each mitochondrion has its own strand of DNA that is different from the rest of the cell's and replicates independently of it. This discovery led microbiologist Lynn Margulis to propose in the early 1970s that complex life evolved out of symbiotic relationships between early life forms.
Like mitochondria, chloroplasts, the little bodies responsible for photosynthesis in plants, also have their own bundle of genetic material and are strikingly similar to bluegreen bacteria. Margulis suggested that life became more complex when one bacterium ate, attacked, or simply embraced another. Although many of those combinations failed, both parties sometimes benefited from their experiment in cooperative living. Some unions allowed host cells to turn oxygen into usable energy or to photosynthesize, while others gave bacteria the ability to control their motion. In some cases, winding hair-like bacterial cells attached themselves to larger bodies and helped them swim with a rhythm and grace all their own. These mobile creatures were finally able to actively seek out food, evade predators, and commingle with others in ways they couldn't when they depended on the ocean's undulations to move them.
By about one-billion years ago, some of these newly complex cells had all the necessary components for sex. We can all appreciate this new kind of genetic exchange for many reasons, and especially for the unique offspring that come from mixing half of one being's inherited stories with half of another's. The range of combinations sexual reproduction made possible set life on an explosive path full of development and diversification, one small branch of which eventually resulted in humans.
What is life? It is a series of inventions that fail at least as much as they succeed. It is one mitochondrion finding a safe home in the body of another cell. It is a string of creative acts as dependent upon cooperation as they are on rivalry.
I walked home along the creek between our houses last night, still hot from our sweat and wild conversations. I wanted to stop in that spot where the trail bleeds into the river to look at the Equisetum. But when I got there, I found that looking wasn't enough. After hours discussing things I can hardly envision, I wanted the assurance of matter. So I picked one. Equisetum grow as straight, hollow shoots out of the wet ground. Like the collapsible plastic cups I used to take to grade-school slumber parties, they are segmented and fun to snap apart at their joints. I felt a bit guilty playing with one like that, but there was something intoxicating about attending closely, if violently, to a plant whose ancestors were among the first to transform the rocky landscape into the green world we take for granted today.
Along with Equisetum, the continents were softened by giant tree-ferns and other broad green plants by 450 million years ago. Once land plants made earth a home more inviting than the vast rocky plains had been, descendents of the first globular animals successfully ventured out onto solid ground. Their occupation of land may have been driven by innate curiosity, but the never-ending fluctuations of sea levels gave some individuals no other option. Those animals living near the shore that were able to endure the aridity of land became amphibians, creatures equally at home on terra firma and at sea, but dependent on water for laying their eggs. Over time, some of them evolved into land-based reptiles who cut their ties to the external ocean by laying hard-shelled eggs with membrane-bound waters still inside. By 250 million years ago, some reptiles had grown into dinosaurs while others eventually radiated into birds and mammals.
Delicious prey for velociraptors, mammals had no choice but to remain nocturnal and as inconspicuous as possible during the long reign of the dinosaurs. If a humungous meteorite had not collided with the earth sixty-five million years ago, these warm-blooded creatures might all still be timid creatures of the night no larger than a mouse. But that massive extraterrestrial rock shot into the sky a layer of smoke and dust so thick that the sun's rays could no longer warm the cold-blooded giants. After 200 million years of living large in the tropics, dinosaurs quickly became nothing but piles of giant bones.
Though I mourn that I will never be able to run my fingers along a dinosaur's cool skin, I would not be here to have that ache if their rapid extinction had not allowed mammals to emerge from their hiding spots. Endowed with hair and the internal fire of warm blood, our ancestors dealt with the new climate just fine. With no dinosaurs to pluck them up, mammals grew with a new freedom to take up space with their bodies and across the landscape.
By about thirty million years ago, mammals had spread to every continent but Antarctica, and some had become the earliest primates. These creatures were not much larger than a chipmunk, lived in the forests of Asia and Africa, had interactive cultures, and eyes on the front of their faces. These prosimians eventually gave way to a range of families, one of which eventually became the one that includes chimpanzees, bonobos (also known as pygmy chimpanzees), gorillas, and orangutans. And then, just six million years ago, our earliest humanoid ancestors took a small but dramatic step away from our closest relatives, the chimpanzee and bonobo.
Ninety-eight percent of the stories in each of our cells are the same as those in any chimp's or bonobo's. That small adjustment in the structure of our common ancestor's DNA allowed some apes to begin a mostly upright, two-legged lifestyle about four million years ago. The nucleotides carrying the information necessary to build our predecessors instructed early humans to give birth to babies whose brains weren't completely developed and were thus dependent upon their mothers for the first four years of their lives. The heightened vulnerability of hominid children and the help a mother needs to raise them probably played a significant role in developing the intricate, interdependent communities we know today.
In the last million years, a significant number of hominid species lived in Africa, but one after another mysteriously disappeared. One branch of upright primates, however, adapted well to the contours of Asia, Australia, and Europe. These early humans—known as Homo erectus and later, Homo sapiens—used fire, tools, wore clothes, built shelters, and by at least forty thousand years ago, something significant had changed within them. They had become Homo sapiens sapiens, the twice-knowing humans. They had become animals who not only used what they knew about the world to survive in it, but expressed what they knew through the abstractions of art, elaborate burials, music, and syntax-based language.
They had become creatures we would recognize as ourselves.
In just forty-thousand years, those primates have spread throughout the globe almost as successfully as bacteria; developed spoken and written languages; domesticated plants and animals; built civilizations; enslaved others of their kind; fought massive organized wars; invented cars, electricity, suburban lifestyles, and television; landed on the moon; communicated globally and instantly; tinkered with the genetic blueprints of other species and their own; and have made a bomb with the capacity to destroy life by breaking the nuclear bonds that made their story possible.
When I told her about all that last night's sauna conversation inspired me to write, Brianna scolded me for laying out humans’ story in such a linear fashion, as though the evolution of life was a single thread with you and me on one end and the origin of the universe on the other.
She’s right. I did. To do evolution justice, I should nestle the stories within one another, the way that atoms are contained in the molecules in the cells that comprise my tissues that make my organs that function together to make the system that is me. To really tell this story right, I would do it with flames and heat and a true sense of the vacuum that exists on the other side of time. I would stack word upon word the way that canyon walls stack the story of one landscape, one era, right on top of one another.
If I were to tell this story right, I would bring heavy rains, hot lava, crashing continents, and a true sense of how long it took to make life from dust. If I could speak in several layers at once, I would show the mountains that never stopped growing or eroding; the oceans that rose and sank; the rivers that cut canyons; the ice that bore down on the planet; and the bacteria, protists, fungi, plants, and animals that dealt with those never-ending fluctuations by dying or changing.
If I were to tell this story right, I would make it evident that life changes earth as much as earth changes life.
But no matter how I tell it, our curvy bodies know the story of the universe. Its fourteen-billion-year saga whispers through our elusive electrons that we are as welcome here as any other thing the cosmos holds. It tells us that we belong to this planet as much as the oceans, the molten core, the trees and fungi and bacteria and wolves do. It says that we are a network of relationships that began with the first cascade of energy and resulted in a being that can appreciate this version of the truth. No matter how bound we are to a chair, office, or room that rarely touches moving air, we are wild. Wild from our DNA out. Wild from our wet cells with little organelles swimming inside of them, living in seas as salty as those the earliest of their kind did. We are wild from the hearts we can't will to stop, from the adrenaline that floods us, and from the heat a crush’s gaze draws from out thighs to our lips.
Our bodies are inextricably bound to the ancient past, and that relationship will never end. When we die, the processes that make us unique individuals may cease, but our bodies will not. We may be cremated or buried in a mahogany box, but eventually the same carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium we are made of will go back into the soil and sea to make new life, while we live on as charged particles with the history of the universe growing inside of us. Wild with it all.