What do we leave behind? Does it matter? These are the questions that comes to mind as I contemplate this image. Without any pretense or intention, a bird left behind not only a feather, but also the potential for a human being’s aesthetic enjoyment and growth—and in the context of this blog, contemplation. My being there with a camera and finding the feather attractive actualized that potential and as a consequence extended the bird’s “contribution” to the world by many years. It’s a sort of redemption. Posting it here as an electronic image extends it even longer in time and much further in geography. So time and distance are part of the legacy equation.
Another factor relates to the material left behind and how, over time, it transforms. For instance, this feather could have been picked up, added to a collection, used on clothing or for decoration, or made into a writing instrument. Physicality is the initial condition of material, be it natural or man made. When that material disintegrates, if a human being remembers or finds beauty in it the locus of contribution becomes mental. Aspects of the initial condition now reside in consciousness. Relative to this image the question becomes, What does the image of this feather contribute to consciousness?
Certainly, for me there’s an aesthetic contribution. The feather is beautiful in form, gradation, contrast and texture, particularly as it lies enshrined within the hard and jagged rock. Another contribution for me is the evocation or consideration of source. I imagine the bird that this feather belonged to, consider its lifespan and environment, the species and rekindle an appreciation of the evolution of birds beginning with the dinosaurs.
Applying this to human beings, physically speaking, we leave behind our stuff, our belongings, the objects we made and acquired. What to do with it when we’re gone is a serious issue for collectors and all of us who produce materials. In my case, it is photographs. So I asked myself—since everything under the sun, including the sun, has been photographed, even considering my unique motivations and point of view, does the world really need another photograph of a mountain range, flower, street scene, or cocktail glass? Short term—perhaps. Long term—definitely not. Everything, even images and words projected as electrons on screens, has a limited lifetime. Eventually, all matter succumbs to the law of entropy.
Years ago as I struggled with the issue of legacy I played a mind game, imagining a very long chart where, along the x-axis there were increments of one hundred years stretching from 40,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens first appeared in Europe, to 40,000 years into the future. Then, I put one thing at a time on that chart, assigning it a line that extended from first appearance to last, marking along that line in red the duration of its maximum vitality—it’s period of contribution to the world. I began by looking at the lifespans of some of the acknowledged grand contributors—philosophers, mystics, prophets, artists, scientists, engineers, warriors and inventors. Their physical lives were short, but their contributions and names still enjoy some vitality—largely through modern education. When I assigned lines to ancient civilizations, I observed that their beginnings were gradual and their endings relatively abrupt. Established religions and nations were too recent to imagine much more than their beginnings, although some primitive religions and early nations have died and their vitalities have waned. Were these lines to be animated, each would fade in and fade out. With the x-axis representing time and the y-axis representing contribution to consciousness, it was easy to pinpoint spikes, for instance with the appearance of Confucius, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and so on.
Then, I imagined myself and my collection of archival photographs on that scale. I will be gone in less than the space of one increment. And stored under ideal conditions, my photographs will have disintegrated within one or two more increments at best. It was a sobering thought. And it generated some really good questions about how best to invest my time and energy. What matters? What is worth doing? Should I stop photographing? Should I destroy my collection of prints rather than burden those who come after me? Does it even matter that I leave something behind? If so, what would it be?
I pondered these questions for long time. Then I had a realization. Indeed, the world does not need and can well do without another photograph by me. So what does the world need? What can an everyday person like myself contribute? What survives and expands? What moves the species forward and upward? It wasn’t merely thought, it was the quality of thought and the integrity to live accordingly. What the world needs are human beings who are growing and contributing to the quality and expansion of their own and the collective consciousness. Specifically, human evolution is advanced as individuals progress along the lines of their higher potentials—the consciousness of love, compassion, wisdom, ethics, tolerance, cooperation, altruism, empathy and the like, living these into the world, mind and hearts directed toward the realization of universal unconditional love. This, because human evolution is less about physical change now and more about the refinement and development of consciousness as we become planetary citizens. Any activity that contributes in this way matters greatly relative to the success of the species.
Typically, insight generates more questions. What is the substance that I am contributing? Is it positive? And what am I contributing to? Am I just making someone else wealthy? Am I serving an agenda or values I do not respect? Is the workplace contributing to my growth? Is it helping to expand my consciousness and deepen my appreciation of all that is as it is? What we do to earn a living is an enormous and significant part of our contribution. So also are the contributions of time and energy devoted to helping others. Consciousness alone is the contribution that matters and endures. So aside from my careers in broadcast television and higher education, I decided to continue to photograph and write, to produce materials, because these contribute substantially to my growth and expansion on the y-axis. They are the means by which I can “peak.” Even more significant than work and enrichment in this regard are personal relationships. They may be the most challenging at times, but they can also be the most productive in terms of raising the curve of personal evolution along the y-axis.
Referencing the evolutionary timeline again, I do not wish to minimize the contributions of those who amass the most “toys,” money, achievements, fame, knowledge or friends. Rather, I just observe that such contributions have a relatively short lifespan on the x-axis and tend to actually diminish or distract from progress on the y-axis. Why? Because of a simple axiom: As we think so we act. As we act so we become. As we become so we model. And as we model so we contribute to consciousness—personal, social and universal.
If Carl Jung is right about the “collective unconscious.” If Teilhard de Chardin is right about the “noosphere,” the thinking envelop that surrounds the Earth like an atmosphere. If Irvin Laszlo and the Theosophists are right about the “akashic field,” where every thought is recorded and can be accessed. Then every thought, word and deed is a contribution that endures forever. Nothing is ever lost. So rather than being saddened by the reality of physical impermanence, these observations encouraged me to engage more in the activities and relationships that optimize my potentials and expand my consciousness. What does that? Whatever brings joy. Not excitement or happiness. Joy is much bigger. It’s the sense of satisfaction and rightness that comes from being in the moment and in the flow. It’s when the soul is being fed. It’s the feedback that tells us we are progressing on the y-axis.
We must become the change we want to see in the world.
Every piece of the universe, even the tiniest little snow crystal, matters somehow. I have a place in the pattern, and so do you.
About This Image
Title: Feather On Rock
File #: 675-C2
Location: Point Lobos, Carmel, CA
Point Lobos is a little park on the Pacific coast where photographer Edward Weston spent a lot of time creating some exquisite black and white photographs. What makes the place extraordinary are rock formations that abut the ocean with tide pools rich in marine life. Also, because the wind is strong there, the trees have taken on unusual shapes.
I happened on this feather, sitting in the little crevice just as you see it, so there was no manipulation on my part. All I did in Photoshop was to reduce the contrast so the highlights in the rock displayed some texture.