When the average person without any geological training is standing on the shore they see a beach, a wide and long expanse of undifferentiated sand. The beach in this metaphor represents all the thousands of cultures in the world. The geologist is a metaphoric multiculturalist expert.
If a geologist asks the person to describe what they’re looking at, the response will be “a bunch of sand”. If asked whether they see anything in particular about the sand, they will note that there are different colors of sand. If pressed for more details, they may suggest the existence of different textures of sand. Pressed harder, they may even mention the fact that not all the grains of sand are identical in size and that there are bits and pieces of things on the beach that aren’t sand.
Never will they observe that each single grain of sand is unique. The chemical and mineral composition; the origin of each grain; the age of each grain; the shape and reflectance of each grain are all slightly different. However, one grain is no better than the other. One is no better at building the beach than any other. Yet each grain collectively gives the beach its own character. Some beaches are all black or even green. Some are permanent, some temporary. All these differences are to be observed in all our cultures, past and present and most likely future.
The problem is that unless prodded, people generally just see a beach, their beach, the perfect beach, the only beach the world needs…rather than understanding that their beach is really an amalgam of billions of grains of sand from around the world. When they see “their” beach, they do not understand that what they’re looking at is the world’s beach. Their beach is in fact the result of many thousands of years of cultural change, exchange, and experimentation.
To walk along a beach is to take those first steps of a thousand li journey across time and space. Some of the grains of sand will irritatingly get clogged between your toes. Sand flies, blood worms, and deer ticks add to the discomfort. Yet the journey overall is one of pleasant discovery…if one ignores all the irritations. The uniqueness of each grain of sand is forgotten in the general joy of being alive on this planet while being caressed by a gentle wind and a soft sun…just as everybody everywhere from all cultures experiences walking along the world’s beach.
BILLY’s COMMENTs: What I admire most about my dear friend and old colleague from The 1990 Institute Board is that he always thinks as broadly and deeply as about Black Holes, but somehow always relevant to our hearts and our humanity. I love especially many of his poems and shorter essays.