How the Past Flows into the Future

The present. That’s how the past flows into the future.

I don’t remember when I first heard that. I think it might have been in Michael Zimmerman’s American Literature class at San Francisco State University. I don’t know where he heard it.past to future1

Whether we’re there or not, that’s where we are at any given moment: the present.

No big surprise to me, I heard from my friend Jim after my last post, challenging my concerns about the National Ignition Facility – or rather my concerns about the application of the knowledge we might get from creating a star in a bottle, as the Lab’s PR describes it.

past to future maybeIf I want my grandnieces and -nephews to have energy in the future, fusion might be the answer, Jim admonished me. Besides, fusion-fueled weapons have been with us for 50 years, so what’s the big deal, he asked.

This morning, as I started writing this blog I decided to listen to Joni Mitchell’s CD “The Beginning of Survival.” As I opened the case, I remembered that its title comes from a phrase in a letter (attributed to Chief Seattle) that was sent to the American president in the mid nineteenth century:

Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what will happen when we say good-bye to the swift pony and hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.

So to Jim, here’s what I would say: I wonder if as a culture, we have become so concerned about survival we have forgotten how to live.

I have no idea what will be in the future. I’m not even sure that we can save the earth. I think the earth is smart enough to save itself; it just might have to sacrifice humankind in order to save itself.

What I do think we can do is draw from our experiences in the past to inform us in any given present moment. But, of course, making present decisions informed by the past is also tricky. Anyone who has repeatedly ended up in the same relationship, regardless of how the outside trappings looked, knows that it might take several mistakes to learn the lesson.

For me, a lesson learned came one afternoon as I stood on a cliff overlooking the Marin Headlands after spending an afternoon in Muir Woods. With the memory of the cool majesty of the redwood trees lingering on my skin, it was as if I looked off into infinity, the ocean stretching out before me, the horizon touching the sky. I understood that I was alone but also a part of everything.past to future infinite

Finite and infinite.

It disturbs me that a goal of NIF is to master the power that powers the universe. The finiteness of our individual lives disqualifies us for that job.

I am not anti-science. Quite the opposite. I think science gives us a view into the universe that inspires awe – not at science but at the mysteries.

I just think any attempt to exert control over the future is folly. All we can do is draw from our past experience, embrace the life that is our present, acknowledge our mortality, and then take the next best step.past to future last

We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land, as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land and the air and the rivers for your children’s children and love it as God loves us all.
Chief Seattle

Go here for a brief history of Muir Woods.

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