The Same Stuff

Christmas tree farm

Behind my brother’s suburban home just outside of Columbus, Ohio city limits is a stand of evergreens, mostly spruce and fir, some pines and even junipers. I looked out upon them this morning and thought of the diversity among them. Different conifers, different adaptations and appearances. Unlike deciduous trees, they have adapted to keep green throughout the winter months instead of dropping their leaves and going dormant.

“All different but the same” I thought to myself, musing about that one mother tree that all conifers evolved from. “I wonder how far back that might have been, 70 million years to the Late Jurassic? Who knows?” Well someone probably has it figured out, but certainly not me, not a paleobotanist, nor a botanist at all. I would guess that conifers were around far, far longer. Maybe longer than deciduous trees. Maybe even to the Carboniferous period, before even the dinosaurs.

I thought back to the three whitetail does that almost jumped in front of the car I was driving one night a few days before. Warm blooded mammals. Same as me but different. I remembered reading how counterintuitively, mushrooms and other fungi are closer to animals genetically than they are to plants.

All different, yet all the same stuff.

I contemplated the closest tree to me, just across the wooden fence separating my brother’s property line from the stand of conifers. It was a tall juniper. The stand belonged to a larger property, a Christmas tree farm that had been there for many years, before the suburbs grew around it. The property was already marked for development, and apparently had even been sold, though the sellers were still tenants until the developers were ready. In the meantime they were able to continue operating their business.

These trees, at the far end of their property were all far too mature to be household Christmas trees; most well over 15 feet tall. The originally German tradition, adopted by North Americans in the US and Canada, of harvesting an evergreen as a ritual Tannenbaum or Christmas Tree has largely died out, with the urbanization of populations. A few people still buy real Christmas trees from urban lots that set up in November and disappear the day after Christmas, but most, if they set up a tree at all, do so with an artificial, plastic totem, sometimes bearing only the vaguest resemblance to any plant found in nature.

I sat there looking at the tall juniper, wondering how long it had been there, when it was planted? It was almost certainly more than a decade old, meaning it had sprouted from a seed before I left my home city, a decade before. Columbus gets more rain in December than snow, but this year, my first back for winter in quite a few years, was very much a “white Christmas.”  Today was sunny, and the temperature was well above freezing. The snow was melting but there was still plenty on the ground.

“That tree and I, if we go back far enough, have a common ancestor,” I reminded myself. I looked down at the snow-covered lawn. The only footprints were that of my wife. Coming from the tropical Andes, this trip was her first time experiencing snow, and she had earlier trekked around the house recording the experience to share with her friends via her smartphone.

I thought about the earth under the snow. I have often said of Ohio, my home state, “This is the soil I am made from.” At this moment I remembered that it is also quite literally, the soil that the juniper, and the firs and the spruce are all made from, and the dormant oaks, maple and beech trees. The walnut and buckeye trees. The winter wheat we passed in a field a few days before. We are all the same stuff.

I couldn’t help but think about idiotic human squabbles and divisions over illusions like race, the passports we hold, and religion. I looked out over the serenity of the pines, the spruce, the fir, there in peace and stillness. Different but together, different but also the same.

I thought about careless, unnecessary pollution, and on an individual level, simple litter. We poison ourselves. We are everything around us. The idea that we live apart from nature is as fictional as a pantheon of Greek gods living atop Mount Olympus. We throw things out, into rivers that flow elsewhere or winds that blow away, but the Earth is round. There really is no elsewhere. It is a matter of perception, and a matter of time.

Under the seas, the continents are all connected. The same water flows in all ocean and the same sky rains upon all of us.

We are all the same stuff. Every lichen, every mushroom, every protozoan, cedar, crocodile, moose and salmon. Every Samoan, Swiss and Senegalese.

We are all the same stuff.

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Do You Have A Soul Or Spiritual Self That Exists In An Afterlife? Heaven or Reincarnation Perhaps?

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Think of it this way. Hopefully you learned from science class when you were a child how water evaporated from the oceans, lakes, rivers, and land into the atmosphere. If they didn’t teach you that, just remember that when you put wet clothes out in the sun or mop the floor, they eventually dry. That water goes into the air. Eventually that air, as it rises, cools and can hold less water in solution. That is why you see clouds in the sky: either puffy ones of water droplets, or wispy ones of ice crystals.

Eventually that water condenses into larger droplets and gravity can act upon them. This we know as rain, or if it is cold enough, snow. Yes, sometimes we can get sleet or hail, but you understand the point.

Now, that raindrop has a point in time when it condenses and you can identify it as a discrete entity, apart from the surrounding water vapor. It starts to descend towards earth. Depending upon how high it is when it is formed, air currents, etc. It will take a certain period of time to reach the Earth’s surface.

Now, think of you, or your “self” as that raindrop. You are made of something more immutable. In the case of the raindrop that would be water itself. But that raindrop exists for a period of time and then it falls into the ocean, or is absorbed into the earth, and no longer exists as an identifiable discrete raindrop.

However, the water has not been destroyed.

It hasn’t been destroyed; it hasn’t even been damaged. The “stuff the raindrop was made of” is just fine, only the “self” of the raindrop, its definition as a discrete object is gone. The water that made up that drop of rain flows from the ground into creeks, then into rivers, then into the ocean, eventually evaporating, and possibly forming another raindrop. It’s a cycle. If it forms another raindrop eventually, it isn’t the same one, but it is made of the same essence, part of all the water on the planet.

That water it was made of probably existed for billions of years and will probably exist for billions more. Even far into the future when the sun is running out of hydrogen and expands, boiling our planet into nothing, the water will exist as vapor in space.

Your essence existed before your temporal “self” and will continue to exist long after your phase change, or “death.” Life after death? If it makes you feel better, but remember your “self” is just an illusion, or at most, a temporary imprint, like an image in a kaleidoscope that is there one minute but gone the next.

This isn’t something to fret. You lose your consciousness every time you go to sleep. But do you dread sleep because you lose consciousness? No. Likewise, your essence, your “essential stuff” is practically immortal. Only the image of you as a “thing unto itself” is an illusion. The body decays, the mind loses its acuity, our loved ones “die.” We die.  But just like the water in the raindrop was already there, and will continue to be, your essence was already there and will continue to be, but you must let go of the self, the attachment to the “I” in order to embrace this.


Are we literally like water? No. Pilots will tell you “The map is not the terrain; it is a representation of the terrain.” This is a framework for understanding, not literal dogma. In the business world where I come from, we have frameworks; they are ways of categorizing and organizing thinking. Management consultants have frameworks, research analysts have frameworks.

Think of it this way: I can measure something in inches or centimeters – or for that matter miles or knots. If I say something is 1,000 meters or 0.6 miles, I am saying the same thing but from two different frames of reference. And even then, the measurements are human artifices to describe our environment—but they are descriptions of our environment, they are not the environment. The raindrop allegory is a framework to help you understand reality, but it is not reality itself. You of course are not a raindrop, and no allegory is perfect. Keep in mind that we are here to escape dogma, not create more of it.

Going back to the water and raindrop example, water can of course be created and destroyed, by combustion or electrolysis for example, just as all life on a planet can be destroyed. Again this is not literal, it is an allegory.

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

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Not Fair?

Located 1,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Perseus, a reflection nebula called NGC 1333 epitomizes the beautiful chaos of a dense group of stars being born. This image is from NASA Spitzer Space Telescope.

The universe isn’t fair. If it were, there would be nothing to overcome and no need to struggle. We all have to deal with good or bad genes, born into splendor or squalor, good or bad parents, –the point is not to eliminate those differences: Nature ensures that they will always be there for all living things, and we are no exception. The point is to overcome them. In cards, you play the hand you are dealt. A good poker player is one who can maximize a poor hand to win. Same in life.




Located 1,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Perseus, a reflection nebula called NGC 1333 epitomizes the beautiful chaos of a dense group of stars being born. This image is from NASA Spitzer Space Telescope.

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The Nature Of Belief

"Dr. Herschel's Forty Feet Telescope" anonymous engraver, published in A Complete and Universal Dictionary, 1812. Copper engraved print. Size 20 x 18.5 cms including title, plus margins. Ref F4507

Science vs. _____________________?  Science is not something to “believe in” anymore than “reading” is something to believe in or not. Science is simply a method, hence the phrase “scientific method.”

Science is a method of coming up with a hypothesis or theory, and then testing it either via experiment or observation. Test the hypothesis and welcome others to try to disprove it! Science is simply a method for understanding our surroundings.

There are alternatives.

We can believe things because we are told to, whether orally or in writing. Often, fear is used to enforce such beliefs. Peer pressure is also employed. “Are you a believer?” is a common question in parts of the US, especially the South. The person being questioned is being challenged with regards to his or her adherence to a set of Christian Protestant orthodoxies, usually some flavor of Baptist or Pentecostal. In Pakistan, one cannot hold office unless one professes the correct (orthodox) beliefs—in their case, Islam.

We can also come to belief through induction.

    1. I ate a peanut.
    2. I got sick.
    3. Ergo, peanuts make me sick.

Well, maybe. You can repeat this, eating more peanuts, suffering through the consequences, and go from maybe to probably, but that doesn’t go far enough. Scientific inquiry will want to know why the peanut makes you sick—if in fact, it actually does. Remember, correlation does not equal causation. Perhaps the peanuts had residue of a pesticide that was actually making you ill, and not the peanuts themselves.

A poisonous snake in Brazil, the Bothrops Jararaca, causes people to faint when it bites them. When researchers came to understand why this happened, because the venom had strong hemodynamic effects, they were able to create life-saving angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor medicines to control blood pressure, such as Lisinopril, based on the venom.

People might also believe things simply because they want to, with explicitly no interest in objective reality. Astrology works this way in many people, as do many “new age” beliefs such as “the healing power of crystals.” They don’t work, but certain people seem to enjoy believing they do.

So science does not tell people what to believe, rather it is a method for figuring out what to believe. As any tool, it is important to choose the correct one for the circumstances. For example, science is not philosophy or ethics. Science generally does not speak to what one “ought” to do. Science is not a judge of good or evil, virtue or vice.

Science can be applied to history. Archaeology and paleontology are examples of this. It can be applied to the future also, such as some disciplines within cosmology that apply physics to predict the long-term behavior of the universe.

So when someone asks: “Do you believe in science?” another way to frame this is: “Do you have faith in science?” The thing is, science does not demand faith; quite the opposite. It demands scrutiny, testing, challenge and revision when new knowledge is discovered that makes obsolete the old. Do you want to cross a highway bridge built on faith? I don’t. I want to cross a bridge built based on tested, challenged, and verified materials science when it comes to the materials used in its construction—the types of concrete and structural steel selected, the metallurgy, the geology determining how the foundation is constructed, and engineering (applied science).

Remember, anything worth believing deserves scrutiny. If it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and skepticism, to testing, experimentation and verification, it’s not worth believing.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with me below.

Image: “Dr. Herschel’s Forty Feet Telescope” anonymous engraver, published in A Complete and Universal Dictionary, 1812. Copper engraved print. Size 20 x 18.5 cms including title, plus margins. Ref F4507

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