Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men; as one generation comes to life, another dies away.
—Homer, The Iliad
Last week I took a walk in the sierra. A dirt path twisted its way through the pines, leading me out of the town and into the forest. It was a cool day. My fingers felt frozen in my pockets. The air had the fresh, crisp smell of autumn. I could scarcely hear a sound. The only noise I recall is the tinkling of the bells worn by the cows and sheep, grazing in the nearby farms.
I passed a small brook running downhill, and sat down on a nearby rock to rest. The sound of running water is one of the most calming in the world; your anxieties seem to get carried off by it. On the stream’s surface I saw the reflections of branches hanging overhead. Their brittle leaves were green, red, and golden yellow, and their surging reflections in the stream reminded me of a painting by Monet.
Further on, I entered a clearing, where the trees had been cut down to make room for a power line. Behind me I saw the mountains of the sierra, their grey jagged peaks scratching the clouds above. In the other direction was the city of Cercedilla nestled into the hillside. The last rays of the setting sun shone mournfully through the clouds, making the buildings glow.
I saw all this, and I felt in my bones how small a part of the world I am. How many people were living in that town? How many people had to walk through this forest to clear the path? How many years of rain and water erosion were responsible for that running brook? How many eons did the tectonic plates need to throw up such massive mountains?
All the organisms around me, including myself, had evolved over millions of lifetimes to fill a specific niche. Those cows and sheep, animals we intimately rely on, were domesticated by men and women not very different from myself, so many generations ago.
The people who put up those monstrous power cables were each as unique and self-absorbed as I am. Each of them had a favorite after-work drink, each had their own problems with their spouses and their own exasperations with work, each had their own private moments, as I was having, when they were struck by some fleeting, incidental beauty, filled with poetic emotions they could not put into words.
When I reflect on how many generations have come before me, and how intimately they have shaped my world, I get a sense of my vanishing insignificance in view of the whole. And when I consider that all these humans were only a small, passing manifestation of the pageantry of life, and that even life itself is just an isolated itch of matter, I feel even tinier.
I took a deep breath and turned to go. The ground was strewn with the discarded leaves of autumn. One day, I would be among them.