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Of Scale & Civilization

Much has been made of our universe’s seeming repetition of form, of nature’s unerring patterns splayed out in galaxies and electron orbits; wherever we look, we find clues written in the same language. Infinite and infintesimal seem not such polar opposites when one encounters the glow of nebulae within a cell, the roots of trees echoed in your iris. What does it mean, that these designs scale so endlessly?

On a warm summer night in upstate New York, the crackling lights of fireflies floated like lanterns in the darkness; I remember being astonished by the amount of activity they generated, the constancy of their flashing, their sheer ludicrous numbers. Several were flickering overhead, but as they began to flash and group in more geometric patterns I realized that they weren’t fireflies at all– they were a plane.

Without a sense of scale, fireflies and airplanes become the same symbol, the same candles in an unending night: are we really so different from them? Are our lights, or theirs, anything more than signals thrown against the unknowable?

An article in the Providence Journal published that same summer discusses the fact that fireflies are facing a mass extinction as a result of our “signals”; that the neon glow from cities is ruining their tiny lights, making them unable to find each other (and thus, to mate).

We may have held back the dark a few miles further than any other organism on the earth, but the dark is a rich and beautiful world of its own; it’s moments like these, of realizing how little differentiates us from the other denizens of the planet, that make me long for a civilization that knows its place, and its role, in the world…

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