City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

December 21, 2016

Winter: December 21st

Death and Resurrection

7:00 a.m. The cold has reached sub-freezing depths this morning as I jog along the canyon road our latitude reaches its furthest tilt away from the warming Sun. It is the first day of winter, and now the Earth will begin to point its northern latitudes and the canyon back towards the Sun and summer. For many cultures, the winter solstice marks a point of rebirth, and rituals such as the Christianized birth of the Jesus figure embody celebration of this seasonal change. During the northern solstice, people feel nearest to death and seek refuge in the belief of an immortal soul that exists after physical death. It is difficult for me as a product of a modern scientific culture to believe in that notion. Azevedo and colleagues found that there are about 84.6 +/- 9.8 billion neurons in the human brain. What I experience as me is the result of connections between some 8.6 billion neurons in my brain, and each of those neurons can have connections with another 14,000 other neurons. This means that my brain can have 8.6 billion to the 14,000th power potential states or 10 to the 11,200,000th power states. This is far more than the estimated 10 to the 82nd power atoms in the visible universe. Thus, it seems impossible that once the biological support for those connections ends that some independent entity can continue in the form of a soul. However, my experience of “me” is my experience of an ego that surrounds an unconscious mind capable of many things that I cannot achieve by my conscious mind alone. This everyday experience of “me” suggests and re-enforces the feeling that some independent entity might continue in whatever form.

But nature generally and the canyon specifically provide alternative examples that confuse the boundary between life and death. Here, under the snow and leaf liter and in underground burrows, impregnated wasp and bee queens lie frozen solid. Although science does not describe it as such, but for all intents and purposes they are dead. Not here, but in other northern parts of the United States, similarly, there are frogs that are frozen solid during the winter. When the warming spring comes, these seemingly dead wasps, bees, and frogs simply thaw and come back to life, apparently unharmed by the experience of being dead for several months. What then is the boundary between life and death and how can we say that life and death are permanent states?

In a few months, when the wasp and bee queens revive, the canyon will host a true, annual reoccurring resurrection.

Compare to Thoreau’s journal entries of January 8th, 1857 and January 24th, 1858, where he finds caterpillars frozen solid that revive when warmed. In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 22nd, 1859, he observes watercress in the bottom of a stream. He notes empty chestnut burrs at the base of a tree where squirrels have collected, opened and removed the nut inside.

On December 21st, 2012, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on the passing of a surgeon born in 1932, and who, developed a life-long passion for the outdoors as the result of spending much time in City Creek Canyon as a boy living in the Avenues.

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