Friday, February 3, 2012


I'm not from around here. None of us are.

I grew up near Chicago. Where we are as a child affects how we think and how we view the world. That's not where we're from, though.

I have a carved wooden elephant I bought from a street vendor in Dakar, Senegal. It's made of some black wood, the color of midnight, heavy and solid. It has tusks made of a different material, possibly ivory. I think sometimes about where that statue came from.

Did it come from a tree, or from the hands of the unknown artist? The tree came from a seed, nurtured by the earth and the rain. The soil from which the tree grew, the material that became the tree, was the decayed remnants of billions of years of plants and animals who lived in Africa and whose bodies became the dirt and rocks. The same is true of the artist, whose body was made of the food he or she ate, meat and meal that came from the Earth.

Not limited to Africa, though. Storms and tides carry flotsam around the world. Dust from a volcano in the Philippines can be found in Europe, and will certainly become parts of the living creatures there. We are all made up of pieces of everything that lived. The same atoms that once were part of Cleopatra or Moses are now in your body and mine. We breathe the same oxygen.

From where did those things come? Physicists tell me the only original natural element is hydrogen. Anything more than that -- oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, gold, copper, all of it -- was manufactured in the kiln of stars, enormous nuclear furnaces that smash simple atoms together to make more complex ones. When a star dies in the explosion of a supernova, its material is spread through space, like a cosmic Johnny Appleseed fertilizing the galaxy. Those freed atoms then coalesce into planets, and, eventually, living things like you and me and trees and elephants.

We are all made of dust from the dying remnants of stars. Carl Sagan and Joni Mitchel were both right. We are star-stuff.

I don't recall being part of a star. I don't even know in which galaxy that star lived. I suspect my elephant statue doesn't recall being a tree in Africa, but it was. I wonder about it sometimes.

All I know for sure is that I'm not from around here. None of us are.