Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the May 8, 2005 Newsletter issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills somewhat east of Placerville, California, USA

The California Goldrush had its epicenter in this area. There's even an old mine not far downslope. Its shaft dips downward following a vein into the hill's granite. Unfortunately the shaft is flooded, most of it completely filled with water, else someone would probably be working it, if only on a hobby basis.

It takes a while to follow the zigzagging trail down the slope to the mine, and when I take it I can't help cogitating on why the gold is there, and what the implications are.

Astrophysicists tell us that during the first three minutes of the existence of the Universe, immediately after the Big Bang, all the matter of the Universe existed in the form of atoms of the three lightest and most simple elements -- hydrogen, helium and lithium. These are the first three elements listed in the Periodic Chart. Today we recognize over 100 elements, and those 100+ elements contribute by far the greater part of the mass of everything we see and feel. Therefore, where did all the heavier elements, such as oxygen, carbon and this gold, come from?

Those elements were synthesized in stars that formed during millions and billions of years after the Big Bang. In certain large stars the simple elements (hydrogen, helium and a bit of lithium) were FUSED together in the process of NUCLEAR FUSION to form more complex, heavier elements. The minimum temperature required for the fusion of hydrogen is five million degrees. Elements with more protons in their nuclei require still higher temperatures. For instance, fusing carbon requires a temperature of about one billion degrees. Most of the heavy elements, from oxygen up through iron, are thought to be produced in stars containing at least ten times as much matter as our Sun, and gold is even heavier than iron.

The heavier elements are scattered throughout the Universe when the huge and very hot stars in which they are formed explode. The debris from those explosions coagulates into new systems containing heavier elements, such as our own Solar System. The term nucleosynthesis refers to this star-based formation of all the Universe's heavier elements. You can learn much more about nucleosynthesis at a NASA site at http://helios.gsfc.nasa.gov/nucleo.html

Therefore, you, I, and by far the greatest part of everything we see and feel on Earth are composed of stardust, and it's Johnny-come-lately dust at that.

Descending the trial into the canyon, I think more and more about the star-produced gold beneath my feet, and about the star-originated carbon and oxygen making up the lion's share of my own body and the bodies of all the beings of the forest around me, all us stardust beings mingling so deliciously in this fleeting, never-to-return ecosystem-moment on fragile little Earth.

The only way my mind can reconcile what I see around me with the insights provided by the discovery of nucleosynthesis is to conceive of the Universe as an unimaginably large, complex, churning, evolving and profoundly majestic presence with my own place in it basically being negligible, being that of a ghostly, ephemeral but contented observer.

Step by step I descend closer to the gold, and step by step I grow more vividly aware that I am in touch with the rest of the universe by way of a very limited number of sensory input devices (nose, ears, eyes... ) and that the information being received from these devices is being very clumsily digested by a computer completely inadequate for the job -- my brain. When I get to the mine, there's a hole full of water and lots of mud.

Then I begin the hike back upslope. There's just so far one can go and then there's a rock wall, of one form or another.

But, the hike back upslope is good. There are birds to hear and wildflowers to see. I'm not complaining that when I go to the mine the gold remains hidden, or that the only outcome for my mind is that it glimpses the exquisite humor in being imbedded in such transient bone and tissue as I call myself, and that I am filled with a sense of reverential awe.