The Miracle of Dirt

Of all the many factors on planet Earth that enable us to live and thrive, there are two which border, in my opinion, on the miraculous*: the conversion of sunlight into sugar through photosynthesis, and the mysterious alchemy of microbes and nutrients and water that makes dirt into the life-giver to us all.

Yet we take dirt for granted—even denigrate it.

It’s “dirty”, after all.

We walk on dirt; we scrape it off our shoes and sweep it from our houses and porches. It’s gray, or brown, or yellow, or red, but generally not the popping, pleasing colors we are hard-wired to find breathtaking, like sunsets or flowers or bodies of water. It’s so easy to forget that it is down there, weaving Life from not-Life in every second, breathing oxygen, fostering plant growth so we may eat and breathe and marvel at the magnificence of all the plant kingdom arrayed before us.

It turns out, in fact, that exposure to soil bacteria increases serotonin in the brain, reducing incidence of depression. There is a reason why people find gardening therapeutic!

Having a robust relationship with dirt is a good thing for Atheopagans. Watching seeds sprout and become plants is a reminder of the miraculous nature of life on Earth, the extraordinary story of tiny packets of DNA which draw lifeless material from around themselves to assemble gigantic structures, sometimes billions of times larger than they were when they started. And those structures bring forth food for us, material for building our shelters, and mighty forests that inspire us with their beauty and mysterious depths, that house and support entire ecosystems of incredible creatures.

Bear in mind, too, that exposure to ordinary dirt helps young people to develop their immune systems, and appears to reduce adult incidence of conditions like allergies and asthma. Please: don’t use bactericidal soaps and cleansers–they just help to breed “superbugs” that are resistant to them, and reduce this healthy effect on developing children. Ordinary soap and water for hand washing are more than adequate, and are far better for our own health and that of our environment.

Healthy soil absorbs carbon, too, reducing the impact of global climate change. There are six billion microorganisms per tablespoon of soil, and nearly all of them consume carbon dioxide to live. They produce minerals that support plant life as they metabolize this carbon.

So plant some seeds for spring time for your window sill, or a planter or two, or an entire garden if you have the space. Having our hands in dirt is a way to remember that we are all composed of these miraculous minerals, microbes and nutrients, and they serve us every day.

It is the miracle of Sun on Earth that sustains us.

Praise be to dirt!


*By which I mean that even though we understand how they work, they seem utterly marvelous.



Unpopular Ideas

On this day in 1809, Charles Darwin was born. 50 years later, he would publish “On the Origin of Species”, which pretty well blew the doors off the scientific world, outraged the contemporary religious culture, and established the key scientific foundation of the field of biology for all time.

Darwin knew what he was doing. He sat on “Origin” for years, aware that the core implication of his work—that no God was necessary to explain the diversity of life on Earth—would bring him a deluge of hatred and ridicule. He was right.

159 years on, Christian fundamentalists still rail against Darwin’s discovery. Their entire worldview is threatened by his simple suggestion that a far simpler and more elegant mechanic is responsible for the diversification of life on Earth. Not to mention by the fact that this mechanic—natural selection—has been demonstrated over and over to be, yes, the actual explanation for speciation.

Atheopagans know something about being the bearers of unpopular ideas. In both the atheist and Pagan communities, we’re viewed somewhat askance, either because of our religious practices or because we aren’t religious (as in, credulous in gods) enough.

But what if what we are about is actually the more elegant answer to long-posed questions, just as Darwin’s theory was?

What if reconciling the spiritual and the scientific really is a matter of understanding religion as not about the nature of the Universe, but the nature of us, as humans? If it is our needs, as evolved through the development of our brains, that are fed by religious behavior, and this has nothing to do with what is “out there” in the Cosmos?

What if we can meet those needs while contemplating the Universe as it truly is: dispassionate and godless?

As the proportion of non-believers continues to rise, these are going to be increasingly important questions. We have something to offer those non-believers: practices verified by science to be beneficial in their lives, to help them to build community and to feel connected to the greater whole of Nature and the Cosmos. Principles with which to live lives of integrity. And thoughtful celebration of the magnificent Universe through a lens of both joyful embrace and critical analysis.

Theism is waning—in the developed world, at least, and precipitously in the Americas. There is a great deal that Paganism has to offer, but if it comes bound up with theism, it will increasingly find fewer and fewer prospective takers.

So take heart, Atheopagans, when you get grief for your beliefs and practices.

Darwin was on the right track. So are we.

Happy birthday, Charles.

Miracles of Reality: Reflections on the Impending Solar Eclipse

It’s spectacular.

Seriously. When I was a little kid, my parents took me to North Carolina to view a total eclipse of the Sun. I couldn’t have been more than six, but I remember those 2-1/2 minutes of totality vividly, right down to the taste of the chives growing in the field where my father set up his camera tripod.

A total eclipse of the sun is one of the great astronomical experiences. Like viewing a comet, except that it only lasts for a couple of minutes.

When totality comes, an eerie darkness falls on the land. Animals are disturbed; I heard dogs howling throughout the total eclipse period. That flaming ring of light in the sky presides over a landscape suddenly alien: not night, not day, but something else.

Yes, it is spectacular.

But when you think about it, phenomena of the Universe that we see every day are just as spectacular…they’re just not as rare. An eclipse is fantastic because we almost never see them.

Is it as marvelous as a truly great sunset? As a slow cascade of fog pouring over a mountain ridge, or the dance of trees in a high wind, or the ripples on a lake as a first sprinkle of rain begins? The scent of fresh rain, or the sound of wind rushing through a forest, or the taste of a wild raspberry, or the feeling of submerging in a natural hot spring?

It’s debatable.

My point is that the miracles of Nature are omnipresent. It is only our busy lives and their commonplace nature that lets us gloss over them, ignore them as too unimportant to give the attention they deserve.

So let’s try a little harder, shall we? The glories of the world and the Cosmos are with us every day.

By all means, revel in the marvels of tomorrow’s solar eclipse. If you’re fortunate enough to see it in totality, you’ll treasure that memory forever. If not, still get out there and use a pinhole projector to see the shadow of the eclipsed moon, or observe directly with appropriate eye protection. I like to use a colander: it casts dozens of little images of the eclipsed sun on the ground or a sheet of paper (and besides, it’s Sacred to the Flying Spaghetti Monster!)

But see if you can take some time, going forward, to notice the many gifts of beauty and strangeness that the world serves up for us all the time. We don’t have to wait for a solar eclipse to roll around to know that we are blessed to live surrounded by miracles, by a Universe characterized by magnificence.