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So I was sitting on the edge of the world out at Chimney Rock this morning, thinking about a couple of books I’ve been reading: The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean, and The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge. At the base of the cliffs, elephant seals wriggled and belched while a rising tide began to reclaim their small sandy beach. Flocks of brown pelicans glided like arrows above lines of waves rising to meet the rocky shore. Looking out to sea, the Farallon Islands were the only point of reference in the silvery haze along the horizon. Large swells rippled inexorably toward shore on a low frequency, like pond ripples moving in slow motion.
According to the authors of these books, a hundred billion neurons and trillions of synapses were at work inside my skull as I sat cross-legged atop that coastal bluff in the morning sun, hardly moving a muscle. A bouillabaisse of more than a hundred different molecules, chemical compounds called neurotransmitters, were ferrying information within a forest of axons and dendrites, and the lunk with the camera bag hardly even noticed.
And that was just the stuff going on in my skull! The whole of my organism was respirating and metabolizing and doing countless other duties thanks to thirty-trillion cells that know more about chemistry, physics and biology—
about life itself—
than all the smartest scientists with all the latest technology in the whole wide world. And not only that, but whatever pebble fell fifteen billion years ago into the still and timeless void to get this surf party started, contained within itself—
from the strings that build the quarks that build atoms that build the molecules—every potential
that makes our world and our lives possible.
Looking out at the swells resonating across the ocean, I could imagine tracing them back to their source, like a jungle explorer following the trails of wild animals toward some El Dorado, some mystical center, and it seemed in that moment that the point of emanation is what the old Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu called “the pivot of tao,” and that if you could say only one thing about that point before saying a second thing and contradicting yourself, it would have to be that it all began in a state of bliss.
That’s right. All the crap emanating through time and space, everything that’s good and bad, loving and indifferent, chaotic and orderly, had to start somewhere, and if you simmer it all down to its original essence, the last scintilla in the pan is bliss.
So put that in your pipe and smoke it.
On my way out to Chimney Rock along rutted roads and cow-burnt hillsides, I stopped briefly along the road to North Beach to photograph the setting harvest moon. While I was at it I noticed a flicker of movement on the periphery of my right eye. I turned to look and could hardly believe what I was seeing. A coyote at the top of a dune was leaping into the air as a pair of female marsh hawks made teasing passes just out of reach. It was like something from Alice in Wonderland. “Are they playing?” I wondered incredulously as I scrambled to change to a longer lens. “No,” I answered myself, “there must be something at least halfway serious going on.”
The coyote leaped three times that I saw clearly, but by the time I got the long lens on the camera and dialed up the ISO to get a decent shutter speed, the coyote and the hawks had spotted me spotting them, and they broke it up. It reminded me of a Far Side cartoon where animals are always doing something totally unexpected when the humans aren’t watching.