Every day the dog and I take a evening walk. Sometimes it's a two-mile loop on paved roads in our rural neighborhood. Other times we head off on paths on our property that lead to a trail around a lake.
I'm always struck by how different it feels to take even a single step on hard asphalt or concrete, compared to walking on much softer dirt or grass. I'm jarred by the one, relaxed by the other.
Nature is, well, natural.
So rather paradoxically, the relaxation I'm talking about is marked by an acute alertness, just as the jarring I feel as I walk on a hard artificial surface is marked by a certain somnolence.
Meaning, I can't assume that I know what's coming up on a dirt or grass path. Roots obtrude. Rocks obstruct. Vegetation entangles. Slopes can be slippery. On the road, I can daydream my way along, confident that the step I just took will be like the one coming up.
Which is, of course, not the way life goes.
We humans like to construct structures -- both outside in the world, and inside our minds -- that attempt to tame nature's wildness, smooth the cosmos' rough edges, straighten what is excessively crooked to us.
It's sad to think that in our age of urbanization, not everybody has the chance to walk on an uneven natural path that I do. It's the best (and cheapest) therapy that I know. Unfailingly, I'm reminded that what supports me at every moment can change at any moment.
Asphalt roads are a deception. So are concrete sidewalks. Though physically real, they offer up a psychological illusion: that humankind can make life's journeying smooth, predictable, and relatively bump-free.
Browsing through the April 2010 issue of Scientific American today, I came across an article that started off with, "Early humans living about one million years ago were extremely close to extinction."
Analysis of ancient DNA shows that there may have been only a maximum of 55,000 proto-people alive back then. Another study points to only 2,000 humans being alive 70,000 years ago, likely because of massive droughts.
So, yeah, life is a bumpy path -- whether looked at from the big long-term picture or our own small individual viewpoint.
I enjoy being reminded of that whenever dog and I set off down a rough trail. I have to keep myself aware of where my feet are stepping next. I can't take for granted that I know how secure the next place I plant a foot will be.
Yesterday I was blogging away in my favorite wi-fi'd coffeehouse when I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a "Hi, Brian."
There was an acquaintance, who I can easily call a friend -- someone I got to know when we took some classes together, but hadn't seen for quite a while. We'd had some philosophical conversations. So we easily bypassed chit-chat and jumped into Meaning of Life stuff.
"When you knew me before I was a devout Christian," he said. "I've been going through some changes. Now I feel comfortable with not being certain. It's a big weight off my shoulders."
Amen to that, brother, I thought. I was in the midst of writing a post for my other blog called "Atheists and agnostics are open-minded." So our conversation was right along the wavelength I already was on.
It's tempting to imagine that life can be along a well-defined line on solid ground from here to there. Roads and sidewalks promise this. So do religions of all sorts, not just the monotheistic varieties. (Buddhism, for example, claims to have a Way to nirvana or enlightenment.)
But every time I feel my foot sinking into a cushion of pine needles, sliding on some pebbles, or bumping into a tree root, I have a sense that this is the way life really is under the thin artificial surfaces we humans plaster over the natural world.
Uncertain. Continually changing. Out of our control.
Beautiful. Harmonious. Wonderfully walkable.